By Slate Sadpony
"Nine hundred and ninety eight, nine hundred and ninety nine, one thousand!"
Applejack smiled as she gently tied shut the seed bag with her mouth, deftly sealing it and tossing it to the smiling yellow earth pony in front of her.
"Are you sure that Sweet Apple Acres can spare this many apple seeds? Ah mean, I can't pay, an' I'd hate to leave you runnin' short…"
The pony smiled meekly, trying to hide how she felt for the sake of politeness. Deep down she wanted nothing more than to take these seeds – and a few thousand more, if she could beg, borrow or steal her way into them. But desperate as she was, she could never actually do such a thing – Applejack was family, and it was only through this tenuous family connection that there were seeds to share at all.
"Awwh Fiddlesticks, you're family – distant family to be sure, but Apple Family through and through! An' if there's one thing us Apple family ponies do best, it's sharin' among one another. Besides, if half of what you've told me about Appleachia is true…"
Fiddlesticks smiled meekly, her eyes turning towards the seeds again. The truth was that everything she'd told Applejack was true – and more. Despite their best efforts, the Appleachia branch of the Apple family was finding the distant, unremitting mountains and hills to be more than harsh. For years they had been living on the edge, making enough food to get by but no more, and recent shifts in the weather, water and soil made even getting by increasingly difficult. With no unicorns or pegusai in town, even reasonable requests for sun and rain took days to be fulfilled and even then there was only so much that the ponies could do. It was as if the land itself was demanding that Fiddlesticks and the others give up their homes and return to the wandering that had brought them there in the first place.
"Well thanks Applejack. Ah…Ah really appreciate it!" Fiddlesticks blushed a bit, trying not to let Applejack see the tear in her eye. The seeds were no guarantee of anything, but they were at least a symbol of hope. Hope was nothing on its own, of course, but hope could stir ponies to action. And with action would come change.
Applejack smiled. "Why don't you show me how much you appreciate it by playing me a song? I know you've been dying to since ye came here!" She nodded towards Fiddlesticks well-worn, handmade violin case, which was sitting off to the side. Fiddlesticks's most prized possession was inside, and as such she made sure it never entirely left her gaze. Not that she didn't trust Applejack and the others – it was that she needed it near her as an anchor. A symbolic reminder that things were okay, and that what she loved most in the world was safe.
"Well you don't need to ask me twice!" Fiddlesticks galloped over to it, deftly opening the case and flipping the fiddle up to her chin in one smooth, quick movement. She pulled a few quick plucks on the strings, more for effect than to check that they were in good order, and then began to play. Closing her eyes, she began with "Turkey in the Straw," but quickly shifted to her own improvisations. Blending high notes into delicate sweeps, she moved the music up and down, making the notes hop and jump in delight. Though she was focused on her own sound, she could hear Applejack's hooves begin to tap, and then dance, letting her know that things were "right."
Her "opening number" now reaching it's end, she continued to push forward with the music, even as sweat appeared on her brow and threatened to dampen her soft blue hair. She continued to sweep the music upwards, bringing forward the tempo and slashing with her bow until the fiddle began to sing and shout for joy, its strings almost shrieking with delight. She could feel her happiness, her hope, her thankfulness pouring through the strings and out of the wood, filling the air with a rush of emotion. Through her violin, she was able to tell Applejack how she really felt, and the satisfaction of doing so only compelled her to push on, to reaffirm and spread her happiness note after note.
Of course, even as well trained as she was, she couldn't keep playing forever, and the intensity of her playing made her all the more tired. Still, as she slowly lowered the music down, slowing it to a waltz, she felt a deep satisfaction in what she had done, and a delight in how she'd gotten all four of Applejack's hooves tapping on the barn floor. As she brought down the music, though, something sounded a bit off about the tapping. Slowly, she opened one eye, then the other. What she saw caused her to start, her hoof slipping and turning a sweeping chord into an abrupt, unpleasant screech. Somehow, two of Applejack's hooves had turned pink. And also, they were facing the wrong way.
"What in tar-nation…" As Fiddlesticks lowered her violin and opened her eyes, she realized that nothing had changed about Applejack. Instead, while Fiddlesticks was distracted, a new pony had appeared – a pink, fluffy creature that looked like self-animate cotton candy crossed with a smiley-face. In her distraction, this new pony had apparently come from nowhere, and Fiddlesticks blushed as she realized that this newcomer, whoever she was, had probably been there for the entire performance – Fiddlesticks had simply been too distracted to notice.
"Oh wow, you're amazing!" said the newcomer. "I've never heard anyone fiddle like that and when I heard it I TOTALLY had to come check it out and when I came in here my hooves started tapping and I just HAD to start dancing with my best friend Applejack!" Fiddlesticks smiled meekly, shy around a pony she didn't know. "Oh my gosh, I forgot to ask your name! I'm Pinkie Pie!" Fiddlesticks found herself confronted by a giant pink hoof and a smiling, inviting face. It was if someone had distilled the sensation of a sugar rush into a pony. She gently bumped the hoof, shaking it slightly.
"My name's Fiddlesticks," said Fiddlesticks, smiling meekly and trying to hide her shyness. This, unfortunately, only prompted Pinkie to come in for a hug, thought at least she had the good sense to go for the side that didn't have a violin in it.
"Ohmygosh, I remember now! You played the fiddle at the Nightmare Night celebration two years ago! You were dressed as a scarecrow, and I was dressed up as a chicken! I asked you to play the Chicken Dance and you totally did! Do you remember?" Pinkie suddenly leapt out into the middle of the barn floor and began to dance, her hooves and front legs curled up into "wings" as she pretended to flap, peck and squat like a flightless bird. Fiddlesticks continued to hold her plastic smile, desperately looking to Applejack for rescue.
"Pinkie, that's enough now. Fiddlesticks is kinda shy, and she's only got time to be here for a few days to get seeds for her farm back in Appleachia. So – "
"Appleachia? You mean where my first second cousin once removed runs her rock farm?" Pinkie dashed over to Fiddlesticks, filling her entire view. Fiddlesticks had to step back to avoid falling over. Clearly, Pinkie's definition of "personal space" varied greatly from what was normal in Appleachia. "Oh my gosh, that means that you and my cousin are, like, neighbors! So that means we're practically neighbors!"
"Uhh, yeah, I know Sally Stone, if that's who yer talking about," said Fiddlesticks. She slowly, carefully, walked over to her case and placed her fiddle inside of it, locking it up tight. She didn't think that Pinkie would intentionally damage anything, but still. Best not to take chances around a wild animal.
"Of COURSE I mean Sally Stone! Isn't she the bestest must helpfulest most funnest rock farmer EVER?" Fiddlesticks's relationship with Sally was one which could unironically be described as "rocky." As the crops withered, the rock farm expanded, and while Sally was generous and timely with her rent payments, it was heartbreaking to see all of their hard work literally turn into a pile of stones. Also, Fiddlesticks had eaten enough stone soup over the years to make her stomach recoil at the mere hint of its being prepared.
"Uh, yeah, ah guess. Ah mean she pays the rent on time. And she helped us to build nice stone houses, an –"
"You should TOTALLY come with me to Octavia's birthday party, neighbor! We're going to have candy and cakes and pin-the-tail-on-the-pony and it'll be FUN!" Fiddlesticks turned to Applejack again, looking for another rescue. Applejack smiled meekly, her eyes saying "I feel your pain" better than words ever could.
"Pinkie, Fiddlesticks is kind of shy," said Applejack. "Maybe you should just let her stay here an' play fiddle an' see if there's any other kind of seeds she needs." While noble, Applejack's words seemed only to encourage Pinkie.
"Shy? Then Fluttershy will totally have someone else to wallflower with! You two will have so much to not talk about!" Fiddlesticks sighed, picking up her fiddle gently and hoisting it on her shoulders.
"Well, ah suppose ah could use a little cider, and ah haven't had cake since my little brother Tater Sprout turned five…" Fiddlesticks decided to leave out the part where the "cake" was, in fact, a rock with five reed-tallow "candles" stuck to it. Which, of course, had been "sliced" with a hammer and then made into individual servings of rock soup. It was so unpleasant that she was glad that she'd stopped celebrating her birthdays after she turned twenty one.
"And you've NEVER had my super-duper-chippy-dippy-loco-choco Chocolate Cake! Because I've never made it before!" Pinkie seemed to be practically bouncing off the walls, and Applejack was gently rubbing her hat back and forth on her brow, her eyes apologizing for the unusual state of her friend. Applejack's eyes said "she means well," and that was enough to assuage Fiddlestick's fears. There would be cake, and she could probably slip out after a few slices. She could probably even take some of it back home, which would delight Tater Sprout almost as much as the toy train she'd painstakingly crafted for him. Needing to learn how to repair her violin had given her impressive woodworking skills, and while it wasn't painted like the ones at the store, it nonetheless let Tater know that he was loved, and that was more than enough.
"Pinkie, you g'wan ahead, Fiddlesticks and I will come by later with a couple of barrels of cider," said Applejack. Fiddlesticks smiled, glad of this. Arriving late and leaving early – this party might be fun for her after all.
"GANGWAY!" Fiddlesticks ducked, narrowly managing to dodge a fast-moving and visibly intoxicated blue Pegasus who was bursting out of an open window at much too low of an angle. As she looked up, she saw the Pegasus flying upward in a strong heavy arc, leaving behind a rainbow trail in the night sky as she flew. She was clearly attempting to do some sort of sky-writing, but between the unsteadiness of her path and the brief duration of her trail, it was impossible to tell what, exactly, she was attempting to draw.
"Con-sarnit Rainbow Dash! What did ah tell you about flying drunk?" Rainbow Dash, upon hearing a familiar voice, slowly and unsteadily came down to the ground, her face showing the sort of confidence that her hooves and wings couldn't back up. She looked up at her handiwork, which appeared like a sloppy "S," and rubbed her chin.
"No, no, that isn't right; it doesn't look like Octavia's cutie-mark at all. I need to try again." Before Dash could re-ascend, however, Applejack grabbed her by the tail, biting down firmly on it and keeping Dash grounded.
"Now Dash, you KNOW you're not supposed to go flyin' after you've been drinkin'! Remember what happened with the clock tower on New Year's?" Applejack's motherly, demanding tone seemed to have no effect on the inebriated Dash, who just giggled.
"Awwh man, my butt was stuck in the "6" until morning! Man, talk about an alarm clock – getting paddled by the jammed hour hand until the fire department could come get me out!" Dash fell onto the ground laughing, kicking up a cloud of dust in her merriment.
"That's hardly something to be proud of, sugar cube. Now how about you help me get these barrels of cider inside instead of posin' a risk to public property?" Drunk though she was, Dash readily agreed, her physical strength surprising Fiddlesticks. She had struggled to load the barrels onto the cart, yet Dash seemed to carry a barrel as easily as Applejack. Most of the Pegusai that Fiddlesticks had met had been weak except for their wings, preferring to fly rather than walk, and leave the heavy lifting to earth ponies. Dash was certainly an exceptional Pegasus to be sure.
Finding herself alone with the cart, Fiddlesticks slowly maneuvered it into an out-of-the-way alley so it would not block traffic. She unhitched herself, making sure no one was coming before proceeding back onto the street. Slowly, shyly, Fiddlesticks gathered her violin and went into the party. Noisy and surprisingly well lit, it was a far cry from the sort of celebrations she was used to. There was noise, food, drinks and ponies everywhere, and other than Applejack, Pinkie and now Rainbow Dash, one of them were ones she recognized.
At the center of it all was a gray earth pony with a well-kept dark gray mane, a pink treble clef on her flank, and a disheveled but clearly expensive bow tie around her neck. Though she had clearly been partying for awhile, she was nonetheless trying to keep a ladylike demeanor, wiping her lips gently with a cloth and trying to push her mane and her tie back into place, although both efforts were clearly futile.
"Hey, you should meet Octavia! You two have a lot in common, being musicians and all!" The voice was unmistakably Pinkie Pie. Once again, Fiddlesticks found herself being startled by the sudden appearance of Pinkie, and despite her protestations she was slowly being pushed towards the middle of the group, which parted to make way for her.
"Uh, thank you Pinkie Pie, but can ah just have a slice of cake? To go?"
"Nonsense!" Said Pinkie. Fiddlesticks blushed, finding herself now only inches away from Octavia. She was pleased to see that Octavia found this every bit as awkward as she did.
"Uhm, hello there," said Octavia. "My name's Octavia, but my friends call me Tavi. What's your name?" Fiddlesticks blushed a bit, staring at the floor in embarrassment. Octavia took another sip of punch, clearly seeking the comfort of "liquid courage."
"My name's Fiddlesticks, and Ah'm from Appleachia," said Fiddlesticks. She blushed a bit, smiling meekly. She realized now that, excusing the color, she and Octavia looked a lot alike – so similar they might be mistaken for sisters, or even twins. Even their cutie marks were similar, varying only in color.
"Is that a violin?" asked Octavia, pointing at Fiddlestick's case. Glad to have something familiar to talk about, she gently lowered the case from her shoulders, opening it and showing the violin to Octavia.
"Ah call him 'Jessie', same as my puppy from when Ah was a lil' filly…" She gently put the fiddle to her chin, holding it in place. It was comforting, having Jessie with her. It let her know not only that things were okay, but that she had a role to fill. She was to play. And play she did, gently warming the strings with the bow as she picked out her own notes from the ruckus.
"Everyone, be quiet, Fiddlesticks is going to play for us!" said Octavia. Delicately, she walked over to the record player and pulled the needle off, then sat down to enjoy the music. Though she could feel all eyes on her, Fiddlesticks could see only Octavia's. And they were warm, inviting and comforting. She closed her own, and slowly began to bend her bow.
As she sank into the song, the fear and shyness from all of the eyes around her melted away, and all she could hear, or even think about, was the melody. Knowing what was needed, she began slow, and then shifted into the fast, playful tempo that she normally reserved for spring festivals. Even though it was winter outside, it was spring in her heart, and she played fervently in an effort to bring those emotions into the air. She twisted and bent the bow like fresh young stalks, growing the music in a series of light, hopeful rises, trying to evoke the appearance of and hope brought by the sprouts she saw every spring.
But as she continued, she realized she couldn't keep up this happy tune forever. Deep down, she feared that the land she loved was doomed, the fruit trees and grain fields giving way to gray rocky wilderness. Her sadness slowly crept into her music, moving through her hands and hooves until her violin began to cry. Before she knew it, her fast, happy dance had shifted into a slow, mournful waltz. It was an old tune, and while she knew it captured the tragedy that was befalling her home, she felt bad for bringing such sadness to as happy an occasion as Octavia's birthday. As she finished the song, she set her violin down, embarrassed that she couldn't control how she felt, and thus control the sounds coming from her fiddle. Ashamed, she began to hastily pack it up.
She stopped, however, when she began to hear the unmistakable sound of hoof on hoof. They were clapping. And not the sort of slow, polite claps that were given to show that one was glad the performance was over. Instead, these were loud, almost thunderous claps, which came from everywhere at once, and were filled with emotion, not boredom. She raised her head, amazed. She had been applauded before, but only by her family, and she knew they loved her whether she could perform or not. And Octavia was clapping louder than all the rest.
"Bravo, Fiddlesticks, Bravo! I was hoping I'd hear beautiful music on my birthday, but I never expected anything as delightful and wonderful as this. What do you call this composition? Who wrote it?" Fiddlesticks blushed as the party slowly began to resume around her, although Octavia came close, putting a hoof around her shoulder and speaking into her ear over the din.
"Well, most of it ah just made up," she said.
"An improviser! Oh, you're incredible – I haven't heard such delightful and flowing improvisation since I went to the Blue Note Lounge Jazz Festival in Fillydelphia!" said Octavia. "And I've never heard it applied to such rustic overtones! And the sweep into that sad waltz at the end – wherever did you come up with that?"
"Ah didn't. My granpappy taught me that song," said Fiddlesticks. "It's called 'Ashokan Farewell'. He taught it to me the night my grandmother died. He told me 'your fiddle is your best friend. Because when you need to cry, it will cry for you.' An' he was right, Jessie was crying for me just then." Octavia smiled a bit, and then gave Fiddlesticks a firm, comforting hug. Fiddlesticks blushed. She could smell the punch on Octavia's breath.
"My grandfather was also a violinist," said Octavia. "Listen, I can tell you're a bit uncomfortable out here, but I'd dearly like to hear more of your beautiful music. I've got a get-together with some of my fellow performers tomorrow in the Town Square to give a charity performance. What's say you show up around noon and you can teach me Ashokan Farewell, hmm? At the very least, I'd dearly love to hear you play it again – you make it such a beautifully sorrowful piece." Fiddlesticks looked at the floor for a moment, and then nodded politely.
"Ah'll be there," said Fiddlesticks. "An' so will Jessie.
The evening had gone well for Fiddlesticks. Even though she left early, Pinkie had ensured that she left with as many cupcakes as she could carry, and then some. She'd even managed to secure a slice of the chocolate cake, which she carefully wrapped for Tater Sprout. Her cart, originally intended only to help her carry a few sacks of seeds and her violin, was now bulging to the point where she could barely move it. However, it was a happy sort of burden, and she knew it would get lighter as she made her way home; various baked goods and bottled beverages being consumed as she went.
Going home wouldn't begin until tomorrow though, and with Applejack heading out to collect the last of the seeds, there was nothing to do until then – nothing except the invitation to play with Octavia, anyway. Which meant there was no excuse for failing to show.
Fiddlesticks took her time, looking at the snow-covered fields and quiet houses of Ponyville. This was a land of plenty, wrested from the fertile Everfree Forest, where plants seemed to spring up out of the ground almost without help on behalf of the ponies. It was so different from Appleachia – a land which, while appearing fertile, seemed only to grow scraggly trees, sharp rocks and wild animals. Though she loved the natural beauty of the place, she was always saddened with the meagerness of the harvest, of the hunger that loomed over everyone during the winter, and of the way that the rest of the world seemed to forget about them. Mail took days, weather change requests took weeks, and magical help was so scarce they'd simply stopped requesting it. Were it not for the comfort her fiddling gave her family, she would have left long ago. To earn and send money back home, sure, but to leave behind the hunger, the fear, and the sadness of the place. And to put her feelings into her music.
When she reached town square, she saw that the snow had been cleared and any resulting mud paved over with gravel and mulch. A large, albeit temporary, stage had been set up, along with a series of hay bales for sitting. Despite all of this preparation, no ponies were to be seen, save a quartet tuning themselves up on stage. Fiddlesticks recognized Octavia on stage, gently massaging the bow of her cello against the strings, but she didn't recognize the other three. There was a large stallion with an upright bass, a pretty young mare with a viola, and a stallion and a mare each with a violin. Fiddlesticks had seen many more stringed instruments in her life, but she'd never seen four on stage at the same time. Not unless you counted a washtub bass as a stringed instrument.
"Fiddlesticks! Get up here and play with us!" said Octavia, waving her bow in the air. Octavia had a broad smile on her face, but the other performers seemed unimpressed. It was easy to see why – their carefully tailored suits and finely combed hair; they looked nothing like Fiddlesticks, whose winter coat had patches on its patches. Their cases, too, were made out of fine material, carefully handcrafted by specialists. Fiddlesticks's case, meanwhile, was made out of an old wooden crate that had once housed fine china bowls, and the interior had been made by repurposing her baby blanket and stuffed with chicken down.
"Ah uhh, Ah'm not so sure I should," said Fiddlesticks, hesitating at the stairs up to the stage. "Ah think I'll just sit an' listen."
"Nonsense!" said Octavia, swishing her bow as though it were a marshal's baton. "Last night you promised me you'd play for me. And since when does an Apple not keep her promises?" Fiddlesticks looked at the ground again, and then slowly made her way up the stairs, keeping a wide berth from the other musicians. She felt so inadequate around them – their formal training, their manicured hooves, their ancient instruments made by master craftsmen. How could she even deserve to hide in the shadow of such ponies? Still, she'd made a promise, and with the performance scheduled to begin at three, at least she wouldn't have to put up with it for long.
"You don't happen to know anything by Frederick Horsechopin, do you?" said the stallion with the cello. "We were intending to begin by playing one of his more formal movements, and his form always creates room to add or subtract a violinist if necessary." Fiddlesticks blushed a bit, and then looked down. She didn't even know who or what a "Frederick Horsechopin" was.
"What about 'Die Moldau'?" asked the violinist mare. "We all learned that in our first year at the conservatory. Surely you must know it – it's such a famous violin piece."
"Dye Moldy?" said Fiddlesticks. "Ahm…Ah've never heard of any of these. Ah'm sorry, Ah just…"
"Ponies, please," interrupted Octavia, defensively. "Fiddlesticks didn't go to the conservatory with us, you all know that. But she's very talented and deserves to play on stage every bit as much as you do." Calm and delicate though she was, Octavia was definitely in control, and her defense of Fiddlesticks gave the mare some confidence, although she still wished desperately to leave. "Now please, Fiddlesticks – begin, and we'll chime in as we can."
"What should Ah play?" asked Fiddlesticks, biting her lower lip.
"What your heart feels, Fiddlesticks," said Octavia. "Just like last night." Fiddlesticks nodded and, though she was still shy, the feel of Jessie underneath her chin was comforting, at least. She thus slid her bow into position and began to play, though even as she began, she could tell it was going to go badly. Her hooves shook, and though she tried to work the bow as she knew she could, everything seemed to go badly. Even Octavia winced audibly as sweeping notes turned into horrible screeches, and the violin did not sing so much as it squealed in pain. Hardly a few minutes had gone by before she could bear no more and, in a panic, she dropped Jessie and ran for the steps, barely managing to avoid tumbling down them as she descended. The tears in her eyes were hot and blinding, and she fled in a panic from the laughter behind her. How could she even think of playing like this? She was just a country pony who brought joy to her family and nothing more. What audacity could have compelled her to be so foolish?
Fiddlesticks had buried her face in her hooves, sobbing uncontrollably. All she'd ever wanted to do was make music that ponies enjoyed. How could she hope to do that if she didn't have expensive, formal training? If she didn't know any songs other than those her grandfather had taught her? If all she had was her fiddle?
"You dropped this," said a voice. Fiddlesticks looked up, seeing Octavia standing over her. Slowly, gently, she lowered Jessie into Fiddlesticks's hooves, the violin carefully placed in its case. "It's a good thing I had my hooves free - Jessie very nearly became 'Kindling.'" Fiddlesticks sniffed a little, and gently took the violin case, holding it tight to her chest.
"Ah'm sorry Ah let you down, Ah just…"
"You got scared," said Octavia. "We all do. It's a scary world out there, and it appears that my friends aren't as tolerant and open-minded as I thought." Octavia gently rubbed her hoof up and down Fiddlesticks's back, then gave her a light hug. "I'm sorry things didn't work out. But you can't just go running off like that – you've got a lot to give to the world, and despite what others may think our say, you're a very special, very talented pony."
"All Ah've got to give is mah fiddle!" sniffed Fiddlesticks, clutching it to her chest all the tighter.
"And that's a lot, Fiddlesticks," said Octavia. "My cello, Cynthia, has been with me since I was a filly. She's my best friend, and she shares my joy as well as my woe. Fiddlesticks, you have a gift – a gift you need to share with others in order to realize it yourself. If you quit, if you run away, you aren't just depriving everyone else of your gift – you're depriving yourself." Fiddlesticks sniffed a bit, and smiled.
"Thanks, Octavia…" Octavia kissed Fiddlesticks lightly on the forehead.
"The name's 'Tavi' to you, my friend," said Octavia. "The performance is going to start. If you need to stay backstage here for a bit, you can. No one will bother you, ok?" Fiddlesticks nodded, wiping the tears away a bit and trying to smile. "I'll come back looking for you once you've finished. You promised me you'd teach me Ashokan Farewell, after all. And I know my friends always keep their promises." Fiddlesticks nodded, waving lightly to Tavi as she scampered back around to the front, hurriedly mounting the stairs and making her way to her position in the quartet.
Fiddlesticks, meanwhile, slowly opened her case and took another long, slow look at Jessie. A simple, hoofmade instrument, given to her as a present by her darling, now long-gone grandfather. Every bend, every flex, every small cut in the wood of Jessie was done by hoof, with only simple wooden tools. It had been an instrument made of love, for her to live her dream, and it had always been there for her. But this time, she'd let it down. It wasn't Jessie that had panicked and failed in front of those hoity-toity conservatory ponies. It was Fiddlesticks who'd gotten scared. Fiddlesticks who'd made Jessie scream.
"Ah'm sorry, Jessie. Ah just got scared…" she said, gently placing the fiddle under her chin. "Ah won't let you down again. You never let me down…"
Without thinking, Fiddlesticks picked up her bow and put it to the strings. She needed to cry – to cry out her fear, her frustration, her sadness at how much she wanted to give, and how little she had. She poured her sadness into the strings, pushing them hard with the bow until Jessie whined and sobbed out her sadness. Summoning up all the disappointment and shyness of the past two days, she wheeled into her Farewell until she couldn't hold it back any longer. When she finally finished, tears were streaming down her face, but deep inside, she finally felt better. With Jessie's help, she'd finally pushed through, and now, at least, she could go home happy, and ensure that Jessie's song poured out over Appleachia, bringing her family the hope they so dearly needed.
When she finished, she was startled to hear what sounded like thunder – or a stampede. She stood on her hind legs, looking left and right in a panic. The sound was coming from the far side of the stage! Quickly putting Jessie back in her case, she grabbed it and ran out front. Much to her surprise, though there was no rampaging herd of cattle, no angry thunderstorm – only a huge crowd of ponies, hundreds at the least, all politely applauding with their hooves. Applauding for her.
Stunned into stillness, Fiddlesticks could do nothing more than stay where she was. Octavia, however, lost no time in coming to her rescue. Grabbing her by the side and almost shoving her up the stairs, Octavia pushed Fiddlesticks to the front, to the consternation of everyone – Fiddlesticks especially.
"Everypony, this is Fiddlesticks, a very talented young musician from the hills of Appleachia. What you just herd was a beautiful – albeit unplanned – rendition of Ashokan Farewell, a song taught to her by her grandfather. With her permission, I'd like to join her in a repeat of her performance, so that you can all truly appreciate the emotion she can put into her playing." Octavia then hauled forward Cynthia, setting up her cello near the edge of the stage and pushing the strings gently with her bow.
"But – Ah never taught it to you!" complained Fiddlesticks, too overcome to be afraid.
"My grandfather taught it to me as well," said Octavia, smiling. "I just asked you to teach me so I'd get to play with you! So play!"
Fiddlesticks smiled, putting Jessie under her chin and beginning to play. Tavi matched her note for note, sweeping hard and slow, bringing the music up and down through the sorrowful tones of the song. Behind her, she could hear the violins and bass joining in as well. Just yesterday, she had been questioning whether her music was worth playing at all, and now she was leading a quintet in front of hundreds. It was staggering, but the more she played, the more she wanted to play. As she finished Ashokan, she gently slipped into a soft improvisation, returning to the soft, child melodies she had learned as a filly, those first delightful songs that had filled her with joy. Tavi and the others followed, as did the audience – most listened, some clapped or hummed along, but all paid rapt attention. From there she slid into more aggressive, speedy sound, playing with delight the songs that had accompanied dances, barn raisings and weddings. Tavi didn't miss a beat, and while the others slid back to supportive undertones rather than joining in, Fiddlesticks could feel in every note the joy that she – and soon the audience – felt from playing. When she finally had to bring it to an end, she found herself dripping with sweat, but smiling from ear to ear. Exhausted, she bowed for her audience, soaking in the happiness she'd given them for the past hour.
"That was…Incredible!" said Tavi, grinning and likewise panting for breath. She gently sat down her cello, soaking in the applause. The others collapsed, taking the time to gently set down their instruments but nothing else.
"Ah've never played like that," said Fiddlesticks. Smiling, she gave Jessie a gentle hug, feeling the warmth of the wood against her cheek in the cold winter air.
"You've never played with your friends before," said Tavi, giving Fiddlesticks a quick hug. Fiddlesticks blushed.
"Is that everything, Fiddlesticks?" said Applejack.
"Ah sure hope so," said Fiddlesticks, looking over her shoulder from her harness. "Ah don't think I could haul much more." In addition to seeds and her fiddle, the cart was filled with three dozen cupcakes, half a dozen scones, several boxes of donuts, a chocolate cake, and several other boxes that Pinkie had insisted that Fiddlesticks take home. She wasn't sure how much if it wasn't going to go stale by the time she got there, but still – there was no doubt that there would be a feast like no other when she arrived.
"One last thing," said Octavia. "I know you can only just barely read sheet music, but…I want you to have these." Tavi held up a small box of sheet music books. Heavily worn but still legible, it was clear that the pages had been turned many hundreds of times. "These are the songs I learned in my first two years of conservatory. The violin parts are on the same pages as those for the cello. I'd…I'd like you to learn some, if you could. So that when you come back to town we can play again." Fiddlesticks smiled, gently pushing them into the one space left in the front of the cart, located right next to Jessie on the headboard.
"Ah promise I'll learn 'em, and learn yer fancy sheet-music writin' too," said Fiddlesticks. "And Ah promise I'll be back so's we can play together again."
"Farewell, Fiddlesticks," said Octavia. "I'll miss you dearly."
"And Ah'll miss you, Tavi."
Fiddlesticks slowly began to pull the wagon forward, and behind her, she heard the dulcet tones of Ashokan Farewell, the melancholy song they'd shared, and that she knew, one day, would bring them together again.