Luna woke up early the next morning, ready to put her new-found resolve to the test. She ate her breakfast quickly, and then went to her deck to keep a lookout for Pine Needle heading to work. After what seemed like hours, even though the sun barely moved in the sky, her patience was finally rewarded when she saw her friend come into view. Rushing down the stairs and out her front door, she stood at the side of the road and waited for him.
"Moonbeam!" Pine Needle happily called upon seeing his friend. "You came to say hi to me as I head off to work?"
"Actually," Luna said, falling in beside him, "I thought I would try taking Haystack up on his offer."
Pine needle stopped in surprise. "Really?"
Luna walked a couple more steps, then stopped and turned to face Pine Needle. "Um, yeah. I mean, I still don't really know what I'm going to do, to be honest. So, I might as well try out farming for today. If it doesn't work out, well, then at least I know, right?" she asked, worried.
Pine Needle nodded, and then started walking again. "It sounds good to me," he reassured Luna. "I had it in mine thoughts that you would try this last, though, and not first. But what you say makes sense. And I am sure that Haystack will be glad to see you too."
The pair crossed over a bridge, and soon were walking through the outskirts of Ponyville. The trees along the road became more numerous, although she could still see past them to various homesteads that were set back a ways from the path proper. Soon they were once again at the gate that read 'Haystack's Hill'. They were almost to the house when Haystack finally noticed that Pine Needle had not come alone.
"Moonbeam! Is there another party in the works somewhere, or…?" he asked as he came out to meet them.
Luna shook her head. "Nope. I'm here to take you up on your offer of work. Like I told Pine Needle, I still don't know what I want to do, so I might as well try out the one option that is already there for me."
Haystack nodded. "Pine Needle, there's a patch of weeds that I found on the south side, near the old gate. Would you mind getting started on pulling them out while I show Moonbeam what I want her to do?" Pine Needle nodded, and trotted off. "I was actually thinking about this last night, and I came up with a list of stuff I'd like for you to try. First though, how much experience do you have with farming?"
"None, actually." Luna admitted, blushing a bit in embarrassment.
"Don't worry about it. We'll start off with some easy things, and work from there." Haystack led Luna around to the side of the barn, where there was a vegetable patch. "Wheat might be our primary crop, but I try to grow some of everything, just so we have something to eat without having to go all the way back into town to get stuff." Haystack pointed off to the side. "That's our well, it's served this farm well for a couple of generations now. We're close enough to the river that it probably gets the water from there in some manner." The well was a two-foot-tall pipe rising out of the ground, with a small pointed roof that reminded Luna of the party hat she had worn at last night's party. Half way up the pipe, there was an opening with a small slanted piece of metal in the shape of a V under it, and on the other side was a pump. "Nothing too fancy, but it's easy to use."
"For now, I'd like for you to water the vegetable patch. Let me show you how it's done." Trotting over to the side of the barn, he grabbed a watering can and placed it under the V, where Luna noted some stones had been set in the ground to provide a level spot. Then he went around and placed his hooves on top of the pump handle. He pulled down, took his hooves off the pump, waited for it to rise, and then repeated the process a few more times until water started to pour down the V and into the watering can. He then picked up the can with his teeth and carried it over to the vegetable garden. There, he poured some out some water on a line of carrots. "You want to get it so the ground stays damp," he said after emptying the can and placing it on the ground, "but not so wet that puddles of water are left on the top of the soil. Think you can handle it?"
Luna nodded slowly. "It looks straightforward. Let me give it a go." She grabbed the watering can and placed it in the same spot that Haystack had under the V. Then she walked around and put her hooves on the pump and pushed down. She was surprised by just how hard it was to get the handle to move at all, but after putting some effort into it, she got it to descend. It took several repetitions of the process to get a small stream of water to start flowing into the can, but she finally got it full. "Wow, that was harder than it looked!"
Haystack nodded. "A lot of the stuff on a farm is," he commented as Luna carried the watering can over and starting emptying it on some radishes. "Good, good! Just like that. This should probably take you a couple of hours. Once you're done, just ring the bell, and I'll come and give you your next task. Any questions?"
Luna shook her head. "No, none that I can think of." With that, Haystack flew off toward the hill, and Luna picked up the watering can and carried it back to the well.
After she had finished watering the vegetable garden, she helped Haystack and Pine Needle carry the weeds to a drop-off point next to the road. "They aren't of any use to us," Haystack explained, "but they make excellent feed for the cattle that live in the area. Not only do we not have to worry about transporting the weeds, we get paid for it too!" After that was done, it was time for lunch.
"Wow," said Luna as they entered Haystack's house after washing their legs. "I can't believe it's already midday."
"Indeed! Time goes by fast when you're working hard," Pine Needle said as he took a break from his lunch. "Work will be a bit easier for the second part for us at least."
"Oh?" asked Luna.
"Haystack will be watering the wheat, so I'll be giving you a tour of the barn, and we'll be doing maintenance on it and the grounds out here near the house. Nothing too fancy, mostly weeding and looking things over, trying to catch something before it breaks down." He turned to face Haystack. "Anything after that?"
Haystack shook his head. "Nope, we're in a pretty routine time of the season, to be honest. Mind you, this is also the easiest time too. Planting in the spring has more to it, but harvest time in a few months puts even that to shame. I'm not trying to scare you, Moonbeam, I'm just trying to give you fair warning."
"I understand, Haystack," Luna said. "And I thank you. And let me know, please, if I'm not doing a good job either, or if I'm taking way too long to finish something, okay? I don't want the farm to suffer because I'm not doing things right."
"There is no need for you to worry about that," said Haystack in a sincere voice. "To be blunt, of course you're not going as fast as Pine Needle or I would be doing the same things, but it's your first day. The fact that I didn't have to come help you once I got you started on the garden was wonderful. The time that I would have spent doing that job myself meant that we got those weeds not only pulled, but also moved before lunch, whereas without you, we might not even have finished pulling them yet." Luna looked over at Pine Needle for confirmation, who nodded in agreement.
"Quite often," Pine Needle elaborated, "work for the two of us is not a matter of getting everything finished, but trying to figure out what to finish, and hoping that what we put off doesn't come back to bite us in our cutie marks. It feels good to be ahead of the schedule for a change."
Luna felt herself swell with pride. She was making a difference! And to know that her work was helping two of her friends just made it better. With a smile, she said, "Thank you both then for the encouragement. I didn't know what to expect coming into this, and it's going to take a lot of work getting all the dirt out of my mane when I get home, but it feels worth it."
After lunch, Luna paused for a bit to watch Haystack start the watering. The pegasus flew up to grab a smaller-sized rain cloud, and then slowly guided it around the hill, first up and down, then back and forth, as it gently spilled rain over the growing wheat. She recalled Haystack's comment earlier about how nothing on a farm was as easy as it looked, and wondered just how difficult it was to actually keep a cloud raining such a steady amount, or how fragile it might be. It was almost a common sight to see a pegasus pony fly up to a cloud and disperse it into nothing with a swift buck. To keep a cloud constantly on the move, without it breaking up, or disturbing its rain flow? Luna shook her head at all the hidden difficulties and followed Pine Needle into the barn.
Luna was astonished to see that one end of the building housed a giant device. Pine Needle watched her as she slowly examined it. It was two stories tall, and looked like a giant pillar. On the wall, a ramp led up to the upper story and from the ground a smaller ramp led up to a platform, three or four feet off the ground which circled around the middle of the device. On that platform, there were a couple of bars that stuck straight out, parallel to the ground. At the bottom of the device was an opening, reminding her of the well outside with its V-like funnel underneath a hole that was a foot off the ground at its base.
"So, mine friend, do you have any guesses as to what that is?" Pine Needle asked as she finished walking around the base of the device.
"I'm not entirely sure, but I think I can make some guesses," she said, still piecing things together. "That platform with the poles, the way the platform goes all the way around, I'm guessing that the poles are pushed, to power the thing?"
"Very good!" said Pine Needle. "What else?"
"Hmmm, well the bottom reminds me of the well, as if something is supposed to come out of it. But I don't know what. Is this some sort of giant well?"
"No, no. But you are right, that is where something comes out. Here is a hint. What do we grow here on this farm?"
"Wheat." Luna answered. "But that's all out on the hill, and you don't pump for wheat anyway." She gave Pine Needle a puzzled look. "I'm on the wrong path, aren't I?"
Her friend nodded. "Come, follow me. Perhaps if I show you something more, it will all make sense then." Pine Needle led her up the ramp. At the top, not visible from the ground below, was a door in the side of the barn. "This opens up to the outside," he said. "And this," he pointed a hoof at a pulley system attached to the wall, "can swing outside through there."
Luna thought about this for a moment. "Okay, so the wheat get harvested, and brought here? And then hauled up here…" Looking around, she saw a panel on the side of the pillar. When she nudged it with her nose, it swung open to reveal an empty area that led down. "I guess the wheat gets put in there, and then… I just don't know, Pine Needle."
"Ah, you are so close to having it figured out too! I cannot bear to tell you, I don't want to ruin the joy of your discovery."
Luna frowned in thought. "Okay then, give me time to think on it some more while you show me the rest of the stuff here in the barn." After heading back to ground level, Pine Needle showed her where they stored the tools. The sheer number of different implements amazed Luna. "Do you really use every single one of these?"
Pine Needle shrugged. "To be honest, I don't even know what some of these are for, but quite a few of these have only one use. Take that long metal coil there, with the spikes at the end. Haystack calls it a snake, and he says it can be used to remove things blocking the well if needed."
In a different room of the barn, several different kinds of harnesses were stored. Also, there were many lengths of rope, and several piles of something bundled up in a corner. Luna moved closer to examine them, and saw that it was a stack of woven bags with the word 'FLOUR' stamped on them. "That's it!" she cried, turning to face Pine Needle. "That must be some sort of mill, for turning the wheat into flour!" Luna hopped in excitement as Pine Needle confirmed her guess.
As they finished with the inside of the barn and moved to the area between the house and the road for basic lawns-keeping, Luna came up short. "Actually," she asked Pine Needle, "why does he have his own mill? I saw the town has a much larger one elsewhere, and it's powered by the wind and the river, so I would think it would be much easier to take the wheat there to get processed."
"Easier, yes." Pine Needle agreed. "Or, at the least, that part of the process. But there are several other things to consider. First is the task of moving all the wheat from the field to that mill. While Haystack may have a lot of tools, he is lacking a wagon large enough to make the transport of such a large amount of wheat feasible. And there is also the extra cost too. That mill charges a fee for its services, after all. And in this business, profit margins aren't always the greatest. Finally, Haystack is able to make a small bit of money on the side by renting out the use of his mill to his neighbors for a fee, although he usually just asks them to help him bring in his crop when the times comes." Luna considered all of this as they continued to work on the grounds.
Finally, Haystack flew over to them, having finished his watering duties. "So, Moonbeam, what do you think? Is this something you want to keep on doing, or do you want to try finding something else to do?" he asked after landing next to his friends.
"It was work all right, but I think I'm up to trying another day at least," she replied.
"Glad to hear it! Let me warn you though, it's not going to be the same thing every day, and there will be some much harder tasks down the line. Like I said before, I'm not trying to scare you off, but I don't want you to think that this is all there is to it either." Haystack warned.
"I understand. But I like this. It feels good to do this, in a way." Luna admitted.
Pine Needle nodded. "As it should! Are we not earth ponies? Working with the earth should feel right."
"Well, some of us aren't earth ponies," commented Haystack dryly. With a chuckle and a rare grin, he motioned to the house. "C'mon, let's go inside after we wash off again, and we'll discuss your pay."
And so, summer passed, and after a month or so the leaves on the trees changed color. To Luna, this was a magical time. After being trapped in the moon for the last thousand years, she had forgotten just how colorful a season autumn was. Yellow, red, brown and gold, the countryside seemed to change into a hundred different shades of color. And even better, it all changed just a little bit each day, making every walk to and from work a slightly different experience.
One day, instead of starting their work right away, Haystack called a meeting. "We're getting very close to harvest time," he said, "so I'll be hiring some temporary help so we can get everything harvested. And of course the day after tomorrow is the Running of the Leaves, I think we'll be okay taking the day off so you two can participate…"
"The Running of the Leaves?" asked Luna, interrupting Haystack. "What's that?"
Haystack blinked at the question. "Of course, I keep on forgetting that you're still relatively new here in Ponyville. Would you care to explain, Pine Needle?"
"Most certainly, mine friend!" Pine Needle turned to face Luna. "I know not how it was done where you come from, and in Stalliongrad, being farther north, we did not have so many trees with leaves, so this may just be a Ponyville thing. But every year, in order to help get the leaves down from the trees, a race is held. Well," Pine Needle cautioned, "it is not so much of a race, although the top finishers do get medals. It is more of a community thing, where the ponies run through the lands close to Ponyville."
Luna nodded. "And what, just by having a lot of ponies run through, the leaves all fall off? That sounds rather convenient. Couldn't a strong wind generated by pegasus ponies to the same job, only faster?"
Pine Needle gave Luna a searching look. Then, he slowly nodded. "I will explain, but I think that the meaning of it all will come across better during the run itself. So, I will give you mine explanation then. If you will pardon me, I need to go check on something." Having excused himself, Pine Needle trotted off.
After watching him leave, Luna turned to Haystack. "Did I say something wrong? He seemed almost upset about something."
Motioning to Luna to follow, he started heading to the barn. "No, he's just thinking something over. He takes stuff like this very seriously."
"He's a race fan? I thought that would be more in line with Feather Down," Luna said, getting more confused by the moment.
Haystack shook his head. "No, I'm sorry. Nature stuff. He says he has some sort of 'deeper earth pony link' to the land than most. I've always put it off as something he made up. But then, my farm has been more productive since he started working here, and everyone is amazed at how fast he got those pine trees at his house to grow." He shrugged. "Maybe that's just his take on him having a green hoof or whatever you want to call it. Anyway, I won't be running myself, I'll be taking care of the bare essentials of the farm, and then I'll head down to watch as everyone finishes."
With that, they returned to their jobs. Curious whether her other friends would be running, after work Luna took a quick bath and headed over to Dewdrop and Feather Down's house. Dewdrop answered the door. "Moonbeam!" she said, opening the door to let her friend in. "How was work?"
"Good, thanks!" Luna replied as she entered. "It's getting close to harvest time, which I have been warned will make the usual hard work pale in comparison, but at least after that winter is supposed to be pretty simple, just maintaining the place and taking it easy. How about you?"
"Oh, you know. The same old, same old. Serve some breakfast to the guests, and once they're out and about, get their rooms all tidied up. I'm just thankful as always that my boss isn't a whip-cracker. So, what brings you out here today? Anything special?"
"Actually, I was just told about the Running of the Leaves. I was wondering, are the two of you going to participate? Where is Feather Down, anyway?"
"She's running a bit behind at work today. I passed by the restaurant she works at on the way home, and they were still really busy." The sound of galloping hooves steadily grew from outside. "Sounds like she's here now though, watch the door, hun."
The sounds of hooves skidding were followed by the door opening to reveal Feather Down. "I'm home! Ugh, what a day! Oh, heya Moonbeam! I tell you, I was about ready to come join you guys on the farm, would have been less work than what I had to do at my job today. A tour group was in town from Canterlot, taking in all the fall scenery. I'm surprised you aren't still at the inn, Dewdrop!"
"Huh. It must be a here and back kind of thing then. Canterlot is close enough for that, after all. Shall we go visit some other eatery then, save you the trouble at having to serve yourself for once?" Dewdrop asked.
"That, would be wonderful." Feather Down said. "Let me go get cleaned up real quick. Have you eaten yet, Moonbeam?"
"No, I haven't." Luna replied.
"Care to join us then? It's a been a few days since we last had a good chat." Feather Down asked as she slowly climbed the stairs to the bedroom above.
"I'd love to!"
After a short wait, the three mares headed out and soon were enjoying some fresh salads at a place called 'The Other Side of the Fence'. "So, you two," Luna asked between bites, "are you going to be participating in the Running of the Leaves?"
"I won't," said Dewdrop. "I couldn't get the day off from work, although I should be able to catch the finish on my lunch break."
"How about you, Feather Down?" Luna asked.
The pink earth pony looked a bit uncomfortable. "Well, I don't know if I should or not. After last year and all…" Luna blinked as Dewdrop sighed.
"Listen, hun," Dewdrop said, placing a hoof on her roommate's shoulder. "You just have to forget about that. Everybody else did after a week or two!"
"And they're all remembering it again, now that the race is coming up!" Feather Down complained. "I'll probably be better off just staying away from the whole thing."
"Um, pardon my asking," said Luna, "but just what happened last year?"
"While waiting in the starting area," explained Dewdrop, "she fell asleep. And then the race started without her, and she missed the entire thing."
"They make you wait so long at the starting line, it's ridiculous!" Feather Down wailed. "I was stretching, trying to keep my legs loose, and then my stretch turned into a yawn, and the next thing I remember they're dragging me off the course so I wouldn't get trampled as the runners finished! If I show up, I just know I'm going to be made fun of." With a melodramatic sigh, she laid her head down on the table.
Taking it all in, Luna fought back a giggle. "Well, one sure way to get them to forget about that would be to run a really good race this year. I mean, you're one of the faster ponies I know, I don't see why you wouldn't want to run"
"Well, that's kind of you to say, Moonbeam." Said Feather Down. "But there are some pretty athletic ponies out there. Applejack comes to mind right away, and there are several others that I just don't know if I could beat in a race. Make it close? Sure, but this is a lengthy course with lots of turns to it also." She paused to take a sip form her drink. "But this isn't something many ponies go into trying to win either. It's more of a group thing first, and then in the last bit it turns into a mad dash for the finish, out of those who still have some spring in their stride after all the prior running. How about you, Moonbeam? Are you going to be running in it?"
Luna smiled at her two friends. "Yes! It sounds like fun! I'll be running with Pine Needle, so I'll…" Luna trailed off seeing her friends get an uncomfortable look on their faces. "What? What is it?"
Dewdrop sighed. "Look hun, Pine Needle means well, and is a great guy and all, but…" she paused, looking for the right words.
"But he's got some screwy notions too," supplied Feather Down. "Always talking about earth ponies and their bond with nature and that junk. Puh-lease! Just because he can make things grow well, doesn't mean he has to go and attach some mumbo jumbo stuff to it."
"What we're trying to say is," Dewdrop continued, "is that you should take anything he says during the race about that kind of stuff with a grain of salt." Feather Down nodded in agreement to her roommate's words.
"Oh, okay, I'll do that then," Luna said, feeling a bit surprised by the severity of the tone coming from her friends. "Thanks for the warning, I guess."
"Ah, it won't be that bad, I suppose," conceded Feather Down, seeing Luna get a bit discouraged. "After all, you'll be running! It isn't like he'll have too much extra energy to be talking for that long. If he gets to be too annoying, just pick up the pace a little, put it down to the thrill of being in the run if he asks later."
Luna nodded. "That's sounds like a good idea, thanks. So, are you going to run or not, Feather Down?" she asked in an effort to change the subject.
"Okay, okay, I will! Yeesh!" Feather Down threw her hooves above head in mock surrender. "I guess I did ask for the day off from work anyway, might as well do that instead of getting some extra shut eye." Dewdrop rolled her eyes at her roommate hamming it up, while Luna giggled behind a hoof. "And I'll do my best to finish at the front, if you promise to stay near me in the starting area so I don't pull a repeat of last year."
"Will do!" agreed Luna.
Feather Down looked at her with a seriousness that Luna hadn't recalled seeing too often before. "I'm dead serious, Moonbeam. If I even so much as yawn, or look like I'm about to lie down, you and Pine Needle do whatever it takes, even kicking me, you hear?"
Luna was taken aback by Feather Down's vehemence. "I—I will!"
Feather Down leaned over the table, staring Luna in the face from point blank range. "Swear it!"
"Uh, uh, Cross my heart, hope to fly!" Luna stammered.
"Stick a cupcake in your eye." Feather Down finished solemnly and then sat down.
Dewdrop, signaled to the waiter. "All this talk of cupcakes made me realize something. We haven't had dessert yet!" With that, the trio started laughing as they looked over the dessert menu.
The day of the race came, and Luna and Pine Needle went to meet Feather Down at her house. "She insisted," Luna explained, "that we go to her just to be extra sure that nothing would cause her to miss the run." They found Feather Down ready to go, even dressed for the occasion with a white headband to keep her red mane out of her eyes.
"Look at you!" Pine Needle said. "Somepony is ready to do their part!"
"Moonbeam explained what I need you guys to do for me, right?" Feather Down asked as she closed the door behind her.
Pine Needle nodded. "I am always ready to kick mine friends when called upon to," he answered in mock seriousness.
The three earth ponies meandered to the starting area, still a good twenty minutes or so early according to the clock tower in the middle of town. As they mingled in the starting area, Luna heard some snickering come from behind her. Turning, she saw a couple of younger stallions toss a pillow at Feather Down's feet and start laughing raucously. Luna turned and stared at them, mouth open in shock. Pine Needle started to step forward, looking ready to take matters into his own hooves, when Feather Down said, "No need to worry, guys." She prodded the pillow with a hoof, and then turned her nose up in disdain. "I'm much stronger than that!" She then walked away, towards the front of the starting area, her two friends following and other ponies chuckling at the would be pranksters instead.
"Good job, Feather Down!" Luna gushed.
Feather Down chuckled. "It takes more than a lousy straw filled pillow to make me want to lay down! Ha ha!"
Pine Needle leaned close to whisper into Luna's ear. "Does that mean she would have laid down if it was a high-quality pillow?"
Soon the three of them were just behind the front row of runners, and saw something that made them all pause in bewilderment. "Am I, am I actually seeing Applejack tie Rainbow Dash up?" asked Luna in wonderment. "Pine Needle, are you seeing this too? Pine… oh for the love of, Feather Down, help me drag Pine Needle back a ways please? He saw Applejack again." The two girls each grabbed a mouthful of Pine Needle's tail and dragged him back a few feet. Soon, the crowd filled in the the gap, and Applejack was blocked from view.
"You snap lover stallion out of his daze, and I'll go find out what the heck that was all about." Feather Down said, and left for the front. Luna waved a hoof in front of Pine Needle's eyes, and then lightly tapped on his forehead until he returned to his senses.
"Yes, yes, I have come back. Mine apologies, Moonbeam." With a sigh, he whispered something that Luna couldn't quite make out, but she thought it sounded like "Lucky Rainbow Dash." A few minutes passed, and Luna was just about to go looking for Feather Down by herself, just in case the other mare actually had fallen asleep somewhere, when she saw her friend return with her head hanging low.
"Feather Down! What's wrong?" Luna asked, her voice filled with concern. 'She was looking all fired up and ready to go just a moment ago, and now she looks like somebody she knew died!'
"Well, you can count out any hope of me winning the race this year." Feather Down moped. "Turns out the best two athletes in town are using the race as a grudge match. If they're going to go at this full out, I have no chance."
"Oh, come now!" protested Pine Needle. "Rainbow Dash is just a pegasus. Sure, she's fast, but she'll be out of her element, so to speak. I think you should have no trouble beating her in a foot race."
Feather Down glared at Pine Needle and tapped a hoof for a few seconds. "I notice you don't say anything about my chances of beating Applejack," she stated sourly.
"Well, um, er…" Pine Needle stammered.
"Oh, look!" Luna interjected, both with her words and her body in between her two friends. "Pinkie Pie and Spike are up in a balloon! I think I just heard Pinkie Pie announce that it's almost time to start!"
Feather Down was having none of it though. "You. Just. Watch. I'll beat your precious Applejack! Mark my words!" She spat her words right into Pine Needle's face, and then turned and stomped up towards the front of the pack.
Luna watched anxiously back and forth between her two friends until Feather Down was out of sight. Turning to look at Pine Needle, she tried to come up with something to say to apologize when she saw Pine Needle fall to his knees and laugh so hard that tears were running down his face. "What the…" Luna said, feeling like she was losing a grasp not only on the situation, but also on reality itself.
"Oh, forgive me Moonbeam, but mine plan worked perfectly! I was hoping to get her motivated to do her best, but even I am impressed by what I did there! If she isn't in the top three now, it will be because of some sort of injury." Luna stared in amazement at Pine Needle, having trouble comprehending that he, of all ponies, might be capable of such subterfuge. Finally, she broke into laughter too, until Pinkie Pie's words to get ready echoed across the ground.
And then, they were off! Luna lagged near the back of the pack, taking in the sight of all the trees losing their leaves in a multi-hued blizzard. "Oh, Pine Needle, this is amazing! Is this what you were talking about?"
Pine Needle shook his head. "No, although this is certainly a fine sight to take in. What I was referring to was…"
"Hello! I see I'm not the only pony taking a slightly leisurely pace at the start!" Twilight Sparkle moved up to the two of them. "Hello, Moonbeam! Enjoying the run so far?"
"Hiya Twilight! Yes, it sure is something. Nothing like it where I come from." Luna turned to Pine Needle. "Twilight is the one who hosted the welcome party for me, remember? She's been kind enough to keep in touch with me, checking in to make sure I'm doing okay."
"That is very nice of you." Pine Needle said.
"Well, you know," said Twilight, looking a bit embarrassed by it. "I've only been here a couple of months longer than she has. We newcomers need to stick together, right?" The purple unicorn gave off a nervous chuckle. "So, why are the two of you hanging near the back?"
"Well," Pine Needle explained, "I was just about to help Moonbeam try to use her earth pony magic." This declaration brought a brief silence between the two mares, who looked at each other questioningly.
"Well, not to be much of a neighsayer, but earth ponies don't have magic. I should know,' said Twilight, "I've studied it pretty extensively."
With a knowing smile on his face, Pine Needle shook his head. "Twilight Sparkle, it would be mine honor if you would listen to me then as I explain it to Moonbeam here. To know that I have taught one of the best magicians of our time something along these lines would indeed make my day."
"Uh, sure. As long as we keep on running at close to this pace, I really don't have anything else to be doing, I guess."
"Excellent! I will need your help too in a bit, now that I think on it, so I am in your debt." Pine Needle cleared his throat. "Now, everyone knows that unicorns, such as you Twilight, are the strongest in magic, capable of doing feats with it that the rest of us can only dream of doing. Pegasus ponies have some magic too, but it is of a more subtle nature. They can fly, obviously, and they can also walk on clouds and move them around to control the weather. Feats that shouldn't be possible, except for magic."
"Okay, I can see that," said Luna. "So what exactly is earth pony magic then?"
"Ours is an even more subtle thing. More of a bond with the earth itself. Notice how all the leaves fall off the trees, every single one, just by the lot of us running past? Doesn't that seem just a bit convenient?"
Twilight nodded slowly. "Now that you mention, it does a bit. Still, there are lots of unicorns and pegasi running in this too."
"Yes, but remember that Ponyville was settled by earth ponies. This race was an event before unicorns and pegasi lived here in large numbers. While they help with their numbers to shake the ground, it is the earth ponies who help make such a complete success of this endeavor."
"Okay then, so just what is this bond then? How does it work?" Luna asked.
"It is a subconscious thing. All earth ponies do it without even thinking of it. By their passing, they help make the land more capable of sustaining plants, they help the trees bloom and shed their leaves." Pine Needle paused. "Here's another way to think of it. Imagine a stream going through a forest. That stream is how healthy the land is. Earth pony magic would be akin to seeing that a log has fallen into the stream, and is partly blocking its flow. We move it out of the way so that the stream can once again flow like it should."
Luna considered this as they rounded a turn. "So, what then, ponies skilled in earth magic can help dig a better way for the river, then?"
Pine Needle shook his head. "No, not even anything that grand. To continue the example, we cannot directly change the river itself. At best, I can sense where the best place to take advantage of the river is. You could say that I know where the best spots to take a bath are, for example. Using that, I knew where to plant mine pine trees so they could grow quickly. It is a hard thing to do though. Most earth ponies go about their whole lives not knowing about it. However, it does not hurt to try, and this race I think would be a good chance to try it out if you want to, and if Twilight is willing to lend us her help for a minute or so more?"
"I'm willing if you are." Twilight said.
Luna nodded. "Sure, what do you need me to do?"
Pine Needle smiled. "Excellent! Do you see that turn a short ways ahead?" Waiting for both of the mares to nod, he continued, "After we go around that, there will be along straightaway that will be perfect. I want us to all line up abreast, with Moonbeam in the middle, and I and Twilight will be on each side of you, just next to you but not touching."
They rounded the turn, and lined up as Pine Needle had instructed. "Good! Now, Moonbeam, I want you to close your eyes. That is why we are right here, so you need not worry about veering off the course." He waited until Luna had done so, and he started talking in a soothing voice. "Good, good. Now feel your hooves, feel them strike the ground in their steady rhythm."
Luna did as she was asked, and slowly she felt herself relaxing. The beat of her gallop was a bit hypnotic in a way, and soon, all she heard were Pine Needle's words and the cl-cl-clop, cl-cl-clop of herself running down the trail.
"Now, feel not just your hooves striking the ground, but yourself actually striking through your hooves down into the earth itself."
Luna could barely hear hear her friend's instructions anymore, but still they registered. And soon, even though her eyes were closed, she could see little ripples of light in her mind, echoing the beat of her hooves hitting the ground. They were small ripples at first, but then they slowly grew from her, and she could feel them come up against other ripples off to one side of her. 'Pine Needle,' she thought to herself, 'those are Pine Needle's ripples'. Suddenly, she felt in herself a rush of energy, and found that her ripples could spread wide indeed…
Twilight's attention was grabbed as Pine Needle's droning stopped with a gasp. "By the sun and the moon!" he whispered, and Twilight's mind quickly figured things out as she too felt a small tingle go down her spine.
'Oh boy! Just my luck that she still has the magical strength of an alicorn for earth pony magic even as an earth pony!' she realized, wondering how to cover this up if Pine Needle started to ask funny questions.
Luna's ripples now spread out far enough she could feel the ripples coming from all of the other ponies running the race. It was like watching a rain shower come down on the surface of a pond. Then she could feel where each of the trees had their roots sink into the ground, where proud rocks had withstood the erosion of the wind and the rain. It felt glorious. Unbeknownst to her, trees a hundred feet away from the road were spontaneously losing their leaves.
Suddenly, she felt herself pulled abruptly back into her body when a sharp pain flared on her shin. "Sorry about that!" apologized Twilight. "I stumbled, and I ended up clipping you. Are you okay?"
"I, um, yeah," Luna stammered, still a bit thrown off by what she had experienced. Suddenly, the enormity of what she had been doing caught up to her. 'Dang it, I can't share that with anyone! Then they'll know something is up with me! I'm very lucky Twilight stumbled when she did, or who knows what I might have done!' She turned to face Pine Needle. "I think I actually felt a little something there. Like a small ripple, extending from my hooves as I was running."
Pine Needle nodded slowly. "That you could feel even that much is quite amazing, Moonbeam. Very few ponies can do even that much, and for you to do it on your first try… I am astounded."
Luna blushed at the compliment, while secretly feeling very relieved. 'Thank goodness he didn't feel me stretching out all the way like I did! That would have been impossible to explain away!' "Come on," Luna said aloud, "let's get back into the pack again, it feels a bit harder to keep up from back here." She then charged ahead.
Twilight held back Pine Needle by cutting in front of him before he could follow Luna. "Thank you for sharing that with her, and with me. While it isn't anything that I can really use, it has brought me a greater understanding of how things work, and I appreciate that a lot."
"It was mine pleasure. Did you, um, feel anything while she was doing that?" Pine Needle asked nervously.
"Nope, not a thing." Lied Twilight. "Was I supposed to?"
"Ha ha! No, no of course not!" Pine Needle chuckled. "Well, I had better get moving if I'm to keep up with Moonbeam. I don't think Haystack will let me live it down if she was to beat me this handily at the end." Twilight let him move off, breathing a sigh of relief over the possible disaster that was averted. 'If nothing else,' she thought, 'this should make for an interesting letter to Princess Celestia.'
Over the next forty five minutes, the pack wound its way through the neighboring woods surrounding Ponyville, with the notable exception of the Everfree Forest, and soon the pack was working its way back towards the town itself. Feather Down had managed to stay near the front of the pack, but as she had predicted, Rainbow Dash and Applejack were simply putting the rest of them to shame. Even if one of them tripped or stumbled, they were still quickly able to charge back to their place a good hundred yards ahead of the rest of the pack without showing any concern for saving energy.
'Face it, Feather Down, you're just not in the same league as they are.' She looked around at the other ponies around her. 'Still, the top five get medals. All I have to do is finish third or better in this group, and that should erase my embarrassment from last year completely.'
That was when Feather Down started noticing things getting a bit weird. It took her a bit to realize what was happening, but it seemed like the two leaders were spending more time going back and forth from ahead of the pack to behind it and then back to the front again. Then she saw a look of anger on Applejack's face, and she knew what was going on. 'They're actually fighting!' she thought in amazement. 'I can see them being cocky, but still!'
Slowly, amazement turned into anger as she watched them blatantly start to use cheaper and nastier tricks on each other. But what really took the cake for her was when Applejack actually rode to the front of the pack by hitching a ride on Pinkie Pie's balloon. "All right, that's IT!" she yelled out loud, startling several ponies next to her. "Someone has to show those two they can't get away with stuff like like that, and that pony is gonna be…."
Feather Down's rant was cut short as Applejack and Rainbow Dash collided and actually spun some distance up the side of a hill before coming to a stop, dazed and splayed out on their backs. Feather Down watched in amazement as the pack passed by both of them, and then started the final turn into the long home stretch to Ponyville.
'Well then,' she thought, 'everypony for themselves!'
Dewdrop waved to Haystack as he glided in towards the crowd at the finish area. "I saved you a spot," she said coolly to the pegasus.
"My thanks," Haystack replied plainly. "Tell me, any idea how far away they are?"
Dewdrop made a face. "Well, Pinkie Pie has been broadcasting from that balloon of hers, and she has that dragon with her, but if you ignore all the random ramblings, you'd think the only two ponies actually out there are Rainbow Dash and Applejack."
Haystack made a face. "Ugh. I can understand about wanting to cheer and promote your friends, but still, what a disservice to the rest of the runners! Not very fair if you ask me."
"Exactly! Get something balanced in coverage up there. Might as well get a vulpine to announce if that's how you're going to call the race," Dewdrop griped.
Their complaints were brought to a halt as a cloud of dust could be seen rising up in the distance. "Here they come!" cried Dewdrop. "Can you see anything, Haystack?"
Haystack quickly soared up, then dived back down to his spot before some other pony could claim it. "I think Feather Down is near the front!" The two of them started stomping their hooves and cheering loudly for their friend as the pack closed in on the finish line…
"Look at that!" cheered Dewdrop. "Third place! She took third place! Way to go Feather Down!"
"Yee-haw!" yelled Haystack. "High hoof, Dewdrop!" The two ponies each raised a hoof and smacked them together above their heads before realizing just who they were celebrating with. With a sudden silence, they quickly turned their backs on each other. "Ahem. Well, I guess we should go get some good spots for the medal ceremony?" asked Haystack.
"Yes, yes, a good idea," agreed Dewdrop. The two of them moved off, ignoring the chuckles from the ponies who had watched their celebration. On their way, Luna and Pine Needle caught up with them.
"Heya guys! Wow, you sure look exhausted, Moonbeam. You going to be okay?" Dewdrop asked.
Luna nodded. "Yeah… Just give me... a few seconds to catch… my breath. Whew!"
Pine Needle grinned. "How did Feather Down do? We were back in the middle of the pack, and could not see much beyond the pony in front of us, I fear."
"Feather Down got third!" gushed Dewdrop. "Can you believe it?"
"Really?" exclaimed Luna. "So the only ponies she didn't beat were Applejack and Rainbow Dash? That's amazing!"
"Actually…" Haystack pointed back to the finish line, where a cloud of dust slowly rolled past the white line marking the end of the course to reveal a very ragged pair of ponies who had been tussling with each other. Luna could only boggle at the sight of a beat up Rainbow Dash and Applejack, and then she started laughing.
"What's so funny?" asked Dewdrop.
"Well, Feather Down was saying that she didn't think she could beat the two of them. And yet, in my first race, even I beat them! That ought to keep her from getting too big of a head on her neck!" The other ponies laughed along with her. "So, where are we headed?"
"To the award ceremony to watch Feather Down get her medal. They have a special guest presenter this year too!" said Haystack.
"Oh, who's that?" Luna asked.
Luna froze, fear filling her suddenly and making her forget about everything else.
"Moonbeam? Moonbeam? Hun? What's wrong?" Dewdrop asked, walking back to her as her friends walked ahead to save some room in the rapidly filling up area near the podium.
"I, ah, I, nothing Dewdrop! Ha ha! What could be wrong? I'm just surprised that the ruler of the land would come out here for something like this. It seems a bit, I don't know, beneath her?" Luna said as she forced herself to walk up to where her friends had found a spot. 'Dang it! Front row too! What are the odds?'
Dewdrop shrugged. "Now that you mention it, it does seem a bit strange for her to be here. Maybe she just wanted a reason to get out of Canterlot for the day?"
Luna took a seat, and watched as Princess Celestia placed the medals around the necks of the first five finishers. Then Celestia turned and looked over the crowd, thanking everyone who had raced and everyone else who had also taken the time to cheer them on. Luna couldn't be sure, but she had a nagging feeling that Celestia was keeping her in the corner of her eye. Trying her best not to squirm, she stomped and cheered along with the rest of the crowd, and when the presentation ceremony came to an end, she excused herself and headed back to her home.
In her bathtub, soaking away the exhaustion of the race, Luna found herself shaking, although she couldn't figure out exactly why. Was it fear of being discovered? Guilt at how large the lie had become? She had been doing so well the past month, too. In fact, she realized with a small knot of fear, she had been playing the role almost too well. It hadn't been until the race itself, when Pine Needle had helped her try to use earth pony magic…
"That's why I'm shaking," she whispered, "I'm afraid of losing myself."