Drifting Down the Lazy River

This story is a sequel to The One Who Got Away

A frustrated young orphan colt with a talent for painting is determined to run away from his dead-end rural village for the distant cultural haven of Baltimare. All he needs to do is slip aboard a raft and drift down the river Fen until he reaches his destination. It’s a simple plan, and would have worked just fine except for one thing.

Seaponies.

https://www.fimfiction.net/story/363036/drifting-down-the-lazy-river

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5. Uprooted

"These yer orphans ‘ll git their house back agin, and that’s enough for them; they’re young and spry, and k’n easy earn a livin’. They ain’t a-goin to suffer. Why, jest think—there’s thous’n’s and thous’n’s that ain’t nigh so well off. Bless you, they ain’t got noth’n’ to complain of."

— The Adventures of Buck Fin

The unicorn stallion standing on the raft did not really seem very important at first glance. He was plain, so ordinary that Turpentine could have painted his portrait using only shades of tan and brown. He was not wearing a suit or any sort of armor, or even showing a particularly militant cutie mark. A simple puzzle piece adorned his flanks, lit up in shades of orange and gold from the impending sunset.

The frown on his face was what had Turpentine’s attention. Mother Windrow had a frown like that, practiced on many little orphans over the years, himself included. There was a certain skill set involved in looking that disappointed, and the expression seemed to strike Ripple stronger than himself.

Turpentine paddled closer to the little seapony and put a foreleg over her back for support. It seemed to help, because she gave a damp sniff when he whispered into her ear, “Did we do something wrong?”

Ripple nodded, but she did not say anything.

The stallion did, looking between Ripple and Turpentine several times before clearing his throat. “Ripple. Please go to your mother. I need to talk to Turpentine.”

“Can’t I stay?” The little seapony paddled up to the edge of the raft and clung to the edge, followed by Turpentine. It had been such an exciting day that the old raft seemed dreary and cold to him, even though the campfire nearby had been built up into a cheery blaze again. It was an odd sensation, much like waking up from a particularly good dream only to find the window had opened in the middle of the night and covered the sheets in rain.

Although he was a big colt, Turpentine found his present position of being below an adult’s hoof-level oddly intimidating, as if he had regressed in age somehow. He paddled to one side of the raft, climbed up the damp riverbank, and walked back along the edge of the raft. Sitting down beside where Ripple was leaning up against the edge of the raft, Turpentine draped his tail out into the water so it would brush against her side for reassurance. It gave him a little bit more altitude, but at the expense of being closer to the stern unicorn, which was made worse when his horn lit up and the spell-induced gill slits on Turpentine’s chest faded away. Just for a moment, there was a glitter of silver around the base of the older stallion’s horn, much like the horn-ring Ripple had originally worn.

“We were having so much fun, Mister Gaberdine,” said Ripple, resting her chin on the logs of the raft and brushing up against his side.

“He needs to go home, Ripple,” said the stallion in a stern voice.

Ripple huffed. “It must not be much of a home if he ran away from it.”

That seemed to strike the baron much harder than expected, and while he stammered for a response, Turpentine spoke up. “Baron Gaberdine, sir. I’m headed to Baltimare to become a famous painter.”

“You’re too young,” responded the stallion almost instantly, although afterwards he glanced sideways at the painting on the easel, which had been uncovered while he had been waiting. “You’re talented, I’ll admit, but you’re far too young to go that far on your own.”

“I’m old enough,” said Turpentine with a little more snap to his words than he had intended. “I’m a big colt. I got this far, didn’t I?”

“And this is as far as you go,” said Gaberdine. “I’m sending you home.”

A spark of frustration broke loose in his chest and Turpentine lunged to his hooves. “I don’t have a home! How old do you think I need to be before I can go to Baltimare? Next year? The year after that? You say I can’t go to Baltimare, but can’t I at least try!”

The stallion took a step backwards, looking between Turpentine and Ripple, who appeared to be just one small step from breaking into tears. “I don’t know!” he snapped. “I’m not your father.”

“I don’t have a father,” growled Turpentine. “Didn’t you know that? I’m an orphan! My family is dead. Mother Windrow keeps trying to find other families for me, but I just don't fit any of them! That's why I want to go to Baltimare, where at least I'll fit in!”

The stallion blinked several times and seemed to calm down. Since Turpentine had the sun at his back, Gaberdine’s dark hazel eyes were drawn into thin slits against the light, but there almost seemed to be a tear at the corner of one of them for a moment. Gaberdine blinked several times again, took a deep breath and said, “Like a puzzle piece in the wrong box.”

“Right!” Turpentine took another look at the stallion’s puzzle piece cutie mark and several pieces fell into place in his head while his breathing slowed. “You can understand, can’t you, Baron Gaberdine? I’m going to find where I belong there. Please don’t send me back.”

The stallion paused for a very, very long time while the sun continued to set and the shadows grew longer. His lips had thinned out and he looked down at the logs making up the raft, glancing back and forth across the raft several times and once out to the river where a suspiciously immobile patch of river weed seemed to be keeping an eye on them before making a decision with a terse nod of his head.

“You’re right. I am the Baron of Fen. I have dominion over my barony and the ponies in it, and right now, I’ve got a mess that needs cleaned up.” Gaberdine looked down at the two little ponies and shook his head. “First and foremost, this raft is made up of logs floated down from the Upper Whinnia Sawmill. They are technically the property of the logging company, so this raft could be considered stolen property, and you, a thief.”

“I’m not a thief,” said Turpentine before his head could stop his mouth. “The logs were just floating there and… Uh…” He wilted under the stern gaze of the otherwise ordinary stallion and hung his head. “Are you going to arrest me?”

“No.” Gaberdine tapped the raft with one hoof and nudged one of the enchanted ‘snag flags’ Turpentine had carefully woven into one end. “Right now, this raft has been beached against one of the sandbars in my river, so it’s a navigation hazard, even with the magical beacon they put on it when they floated it downstream. That’s a problem. The logging company is not about to send one of their tugs this far downstream just to pick up a few logs, so as Baron of Fen, I’ll need to properly dispose of the obstacle, reimburse the logging company, and punish the thief.”

“I didn’t steal anything,” protested Turpentine much more quietly, although he could not help but look at all of the camping gear he had ‘borrowed’ from the orphanage back room.

“That remains to be seen.” Gaberdine took a deep breath. “Turpentine, as Baron of Fen, I’ll give you three days to get this collection of logs off my sandbar and delivered to my castle. If you succeed, I’ll consider your request to pass through my barony on your way to Baltimare. Until such time as you go there or return to your home, you will be my responsibility, as you will be residing in my lands.” He paused, looking around at the sandbar and the surrounding river. “Such as they are.”

The bright light of hope shone down on Turpentine while his stomach lurched with relief. It seemed too good to be true, and the only word that came to mind was, “Really?”

“Really.” Baron Gaberdine frowned at him, but somehow the expression did not carry quite the impact of his previous scowl. “While in my barony, I expect you to obey my rules. Is that acceptable to you, young colt, or shall I send you back home right now?”

One obvious problem with the fairy-tale offer was staring Turpentine in the face, or more correctly, supporting his hooves. “How am I supposed to get my raft off the sandbar?”

The stallion shrugged. “Not my problem.”

“Three whole days, starting now?” asked Turpentine.

“Starting tomorrow morning,” said Gaberdine.

“Deal.” Turpentine spat into one hoof and held it out, only realizing just exactly what he had done when he saw the startled expression on Baron Gaberdine’s face. The unicorn slowly spat into his own hoof, carefully shook hooves with the young colt, and resumed his previous stance, although it seemed as if he were attempting to rub the bottom of his hoof clean against the logs of the raft afterwards.

“Very well,” said Gaberdine. “Now for the second part of the problem. Ripple?”

The little seapony had been rising up beside the raft with every exchange between Gaberdine and Turpentine, swishing her tail and making little splashing noises, but when the baron’s hazel eyes swung in her direction, she sank just as if he had tied an anvil to her tail. After a few moments of relative silence, her green eyes slowly peeked out from over the edge of the raft, and she asked, “Yes?”

Gaberdine frowned, although the expression did not quite make it up into his sparkling eyes. “As Baron of Fen, I’m responsible for the actions of my sub— I mean the ponies who live in my barony,” he continued, obviously uncomfortable with classifying Ripple as a ‘subject’ of any sort. “You were assigned a task today. What was it?”

“Watch Turpentine while my mother and my aunts worked that big bunch of snags that just came out of the upper tributary,” she whispered.

“And?” added Gaberdine.

“Stay out of sight.”

She looked so dejected and Turpentine felt so relieved that a little giggle came bubbling up from inside him. Holding one foreleg across his eyes, he looked in her direction and said, “I don’t see anything.”

“It’s a very serious topic,” said Gaberdine, who was not smiling when Turpentine put down his foreleg and looked in his direction. “The seaponies are very shy for good reason. They’re refugees from a war in their ocean home, and there could be bad ponies here who would be willing to take advantage of their situation. You may be just fine with Ripple, and the sailors on the riverboats all treat the seaponies as good luck charms, but…”

And he did see. Some of the stories in his books⁽*⁾ had even been very specific about what happened to innocent creatures when bad ponies found them.

(*) The orphanage’s copy of Grinn’s Fairy Tales had very little smiling in any of the stories. The collection had been donated without any responsible adults actually checking the contents for little things like murder, mayhem, arson, and kidnapping.

“I’m sorry, Baron Gaberdine,” said Turpentine with his head hanging low as visions of an entire gallery of seapony paintings began to evaporate and blow away inside his mind. “I won’t say anything.”

“That’s quite all right, Turpentine. I believe the seaponies can trust you because of the way you acted with Ripple today. I’m a little more concerned about your accomplice,” said Gaberdine, who had turned back to Ripple. He looked down at her, then moved closer and settled himself down on the raft, gently touching her on the damp mane with one hoof. “You’re a very precious little pony, Ripple. You had one job, and if young Turpentine here had been some sort of hooligan or ruffian, he could have hurt you when you showed yourself to him.”

“He doesn’t seem like a bad pony,” said Ripple, looking down at the raft. “He didn’t even look at my tail or anything.”

That earned Turpentine a brief suspicious glance before Gaberdine floated Ripple’s silver horn ring in front of her. “Still, you’re going to have to be punished for that, young filly. You ducked your responsibility. You were listening when I talked to your mother so you knew I hired a pegasus cart to pick Turpentine up this afternoon, and you ditched your beacon so I wouldn’t be able to find you two when you ran off. Do you know what I thought when I showed up here and you were gone?”

“What?” Ripple looked up when Gaberdine gently touched her cheek with one hoof.

“I thought something bad had happened to you. I was so worried, and so was your mother. If a couple of your aunts had not been following you today, I think she would have had a nervous breakdown.” Gaberdine took a brief glance out into the river where that same patch of weeds Turpentine had noticed before still had not moved. The older stallion swallowed once and turned back to Ripple with a stern expression. “That’s why I’m taking you off the snag tagging crew until I think you can handle the responsibility again.”

“But I like going up and down the river with my aunts!” Ripple looked up with big, watery eyes, but Gaberdine simply shook his head.

“No, I’m putting you on leave and taking away your beacon ring for at least three days, young filly. Maybe then, you will have learned your lesson.”

Ripple drooped, then stopped with the most puzzled expression. She looked over at Turpentine, then back at Gaberdine, who seemed suspiciously smug. “Three days?”

“Yes.” While Ripple seemed to vibrate in place from suppressed emotion, Gaberdine nodded and continued without interruption. “Now I’m going to need somepony to keep an eye on this suspicious character—” Gaberdine shot Turpentine a sideways glance with what seemed to be a wink “—just to make sure he’s not going to try to weasel out of our deal.”

“Ooo! Ooo!” Ripple raced around in small circles, causing waves of water to splash up onto the raft. “Me! Me!”

Gaberdine brushed away a few drops of water that had splashed against his face. “Somepony responsible and old enough to follow the rules,” he added.

“Mee!! Mee!!” Ripple actually managed to stand up on her tail in the water while waving both foreflippers, which was considerably distracting for Turpentine.

“Hm…” said Gaberdine, tapping one hoof against his chin. “Ripple, would you like to—”

“Yes!” The little seapony vanished from sight, only to reappear in an ecstatic one-and-a-half flip of joy that splashed a large wave of water all over the raft when she landed, soaking Turpentine to the skin again. The baron seemed to have expected her response, and had put a protective spell over Turpentine’s easel and supplies just moments before the tidal wave had swept over that section of the raft, although he too dripped into a puddle around his hooves afterwards.

“Well, that’s about it, then.” The dripping baron nodded at Turpentine. “We will see you in three days time, or before.”

“Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.” Turpentine nodded at the stallion, then looked around the brilliantly-lit island in the light of the sunset. “Um. Sir? Where is your chariot?”

“I sent it to your home town with a note to Mother Matron Windrow, telling her that you were fine and would be returning tomorrow.” Baron Gaberdine paused, looking pensive. “I will have to send another note again tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m very tired and have a rather long swim in front of me to make it back to Castle Paradise before morning.”

Ripple let out an excited yelp and dove under the water, returning in a few moments with the familiar length of rope. “We found a neat way to swim real fast, Mister Gaberdine,” said Ripple, somewhat muffled due to the rope in her mouth. “If you hold onto one end, I’ll bet my mother can pull you home faster than anything.”

“We are both going back to the castle,” said the baron, looking rather skeptically at the soggy rope. “Your mother has some things to say to you, Ripple. Nothing too bad,” he added when the little seapony seemed to droop again. “Your aunts said your behavior with Mister Turpentine was very proper and that you acted as you were taught but I do not think it wise for you to spend tonight on the raft with him.”

“I suppose.” The little seapony looked up at Turpentine, seeming both frightened and eager, so much like the first time he had seen her face barely a day ago. “May I come back tomorrow, Turpentine?”

“Yes.” Ripple’s exuberant grin made Turpentine blink and return the joyous expression. It was a little awkward, particularly with the warm glow filling his chest that followed, as well as a little pinking around the tips of his ears. “Yes, of course. Since you have your cutie mark in engineering, surely we can find some sort of engineering way to get the raft off the island.”

“Woohoo!” Ripple did a much more restrained tumble underwater before surfacing and floating the other end of the rope up to Baron Gaberdine with her magic. “Come on, Gabby.”

The older stallion gave Turpentine a backwards glance before pitching over the edge of the raft in an awkward dive. It was fairly easy to trace his horn-lit path as Ripple towed him into the river channel and they paused at the suspicious piece of immobile river weeds Turpentine had noticed before. Although he could almost picture the conversation going on under the water’s surface, it caught him by surprise when the light of the baron’s magic seemed to accelerate to a dangerous speed and he vanished downstream with only the lapping of the fresh waves at the edge of the raft to show that he had even been there.

Well, that and the thick collection of cattail reeds scattered across the raft floor where Baron Gaberdine had been standing, most probably as a cushion while he was waiting for Turpentine and Ripple to return. They made a nice pile for Turpentine to throw his blanket over, and most certainly would be softer and drier than the hard wet raft, but he was not ready to go to bed yet.

It took a few minutes for Turpentine to tuck the drying seapony painting to one side and get out one of his fresh canvases, but he worked as quickly as he could. He wanted to remember the way she looked when she smiled, and to make sure he would be able to remember even after he had gone to Baltimare. The pencil fairly flew over the primed canvas as he worked to capture every detail of her smile and the twinkle in her eyes, and he began to paint with a pressing sense of urgency driven by the unrelenting travel of the sun down toward the horizon. It was exciting in a way he had never felt before, much the same as the way Ripple had introduced him to a whole world of new experiences, and the paint fairly flew onto the canvas with the same energy the little seapony demanded out of life. He painted until the sun passed and the moon rose, only stopping adding little details when he could no longer make out the colors.

Cleaning his brushes by moonlight was new to him, and he took a good long look at the result of his painting afterwards. It was a nice smile, by day or by night, and it filled his mind with happy thoughts while he curled up and went to sleep, looking forward to tomorrow.

   
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