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My Little Pony Monthly Issue 76 (July 1, 2003)


My Little Pony Monthly
A publication of Nematode (Electronic) Publishing
Established June 1997
This Newsletter is Safe for All Ages

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Issue 76
July 2003
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Contest!

Excellent turnout for this contest! Ten entries, and all correct!

*garej* (dawnharrison@ixuk.com)
Amsofct@aol.com
Ara (kimimila@imagina.com)
Chandra (ChandraMic@aol.com)
Jaye (eightiestoyboy@yahoo.ca)
Melody (markp@gil.com.au)
Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net)
Sweet Tooth (shipperamy@hotmail.com)
t.r.kulach@sasktel.net
Violet Star Shine (violet-star-shine@yahoo.com)

Bunkie’s twin was Speckles. I’ve never really been able to figure out the significance of those names. They don’t rhyme, and they don’t have anything to do with each other. Oh well, maybe I’m just missing something. In any case, the next question is...

What was Fizzy’s unicorn magic in the cartoon series?

Tell me the answer by e-mailing TabbyMLP@aol.com or entering through the form at

http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm
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Survey!

Back to just one survey entry... tsk, tsk! Thank you, Pika-Chan! The question was what family groupings you put your ponies into.

Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net) says...
I have to admit, when I was little, I did make up my own families, usually centered around babies w/o mothers. I remember that Cotton Candy and Baby Cotton Candy had adopted Tiddlywinks into their family b/c she was an orphaned pink Earth pony. Cuddles (the one who came with the buggy) was adopted later as Tiddlywink’s twin sister, b/c their poses were the same, they both came as part of a set, and b/c I couldn’t find a suitable mother for her. I never really designated any fathers for my makeshift families, though. I wonder why....

Hmm, what kind of survey question would get more responses... let me think...

Who is the rarest pony in your collection?

There, you can go ahead and brag! Everyone should enjoy that! The URL is:

http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm
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Announcement from Carolina (Kiabluestar@aol.com)

: One Pony World Tours :
http://www.primecreators.com/one/
Choose your own adventure (can be read in any order)

:: The Prizes ::
: 1st Place (9 ponies) 3 from each generation
: 2nd Place (6 ponies) 2 from each generation
: 3rd Place (3 ponies) 1 from each generation

sample prizes:
G1 Cookery Ponies (Nice n Spicy, Vanilla Treats, Cherry Sweet)...
G2 Baby Twins, NRFB Hipp Holly, Playset ponies...
G3 Autumn Skye, StarSwirl, Minty...

:: Citizens are (The Quest) ::

Everyone in the pony community is a citizen. All of us are to pick One Pony to focus on and there will then be a tour of all our web sites– a tour of Ponyland/Our World... that is the Quest! The Goal!

Everyone is to participate just for fun but a little incentive never hurts anyone lol ;) You may enter more than once.

All entries and special invitations will be in the “One Pony World” directory. Click on a Living Space (i.e. Dream Valley, Flutter Valley, the caverns, Pony City, Friendship Gardens, Ponyville, the clouds...) to see ponies living there or click in alphabetical order to sort by pony name.

Each pony has their own website and little symbol/charm that everyone can collect. All generations including customs are welcome because all are part of the community.

To help out on our web development/design skills, resources are available on the Yahoo Groups “OnePonyWorld”, and feel free to ask any questions and comments or suggestions. It is Our World, Our Community, and Our Web sites.

For the contest follow “guidelines”
For joining, just create entrance page and symbol/charm (without entering contest)

Main Website
http://www.primecreators.com/one/

Yahoo Groups
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/OnePonyWorld

P.S. If you ever saw the MLP CD, this is kind of like that. Each pony with his/her own house or place of living to visit with activities.

Most of all is to have fun!
Carolina (KiaBlueStar)
aka Princess TwinkleStar of K’s Ponyland
G3 SunSparkle

:: While you decide to Join ::
G3 Coloring Book Pages
http://www.primecreators.com/~kar5001/colorme/index.htm

G2 Story Contest Winner of MIP Seabreeze and custom clothes
Beautiful drawings and joining of G1 & G2
http://www.geocities.com/xayide2/princess-twinkle-stars-adventure.html

G1 so many sites! lol too many kewl ones to put down
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Wendigo
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)

Tabby approached the counter at Brightblade’s antique shop. “Um, excuse me Mr. Brightblade; little Faline knocked this off the shelf and it broke.”
Brightblade took the intricately carved box and examined it. “Hm, it looks like just a little bit of the trim fell off. I should be able to get it back on. It’s no big deal.”
“Then I won’t have to pay for it?”
“No.”
“Oh good. I just came in here to kill some time. I didn’t want to buy anything.”
Brightblade set the box under the counter. “Right. Just try not to break anything else.”
“I didn’t break it! Faline did!”
* * *
After the store closed for the day, Brightblade took the box into the back room to re-attach the trim. As he was about to set the loose piece in place, a booming voice rattled the shop.
“Hey Little-Blade! You in there?”
Brightblade almost dropped the delicate antique. He set down the box and stood up, shaking his head. “What is that loudmouth doing here?” He went to the front door of the shop and found a large bison with his face pressed against the glass, peering into the dark building. A grin spread across the bison’s face when he saw Brightblade approaching. Brightblade couldn’t help smiling also. He unlatched the door and quickly stepped aside as the massive bison almost toppled into the shop.
Regaining his footing, the bison slapped Brightblade on the shoulder. “Long time no see Little-Blade! It’s good to see you again!”
“Yeah, Bullhorn, it has been awhile.”
“Hey! My name is Sitting Bull, not Bullhorn. You should know that by now!”
“Yeah, and my name is Brightblade, not Little-Blade.”
Sitting Bull laughed. “Brightblade is a man’s name, Little-Blade. You’ll have to earn it. When I heard about you and that Warrior’s Horn quest, I thought maybe you’d be ready, but then I find you running this antique store… man, you’ve let me down.”
“What’s wrong with running an antique store, and where did you hear about the Warrior’s Horn? That’s not really general knowledge.”
“The Horn? There’s been this black bird hangin’ round the Sweat Lodge going on about the great Brightblade Warpony and his heroic quest that saved all Ponyland.”
Brightblade nodded. “That would be Breeks.”
“I never got his name. But anyway, a hero should be doing something better than peddling hand-me-downs! You’re a disgrace to heros!”
“Well, Bullhorn, I’ve never heard anything about you saving Ponyland. I may be ‘peddling hand-me-downs’, but I’m still one up on you.”
“There’s more than one way to be a man! I’ve got a wife and three kids! How about you? You probably don’t even have a steady girlfriend!”
“As a matter of fact, I do have a steady girlfriend.”
“Well, Little-Blade, you’ve taken a step in the right direction. Once you make that filly your wife, then you’ll be ready for Brightblade!”
“Great, now you’re starting to sound like her. She already has her nephew calling me uncle.”
“What? Then why haven’t you married her already? Any man that’s got a girl like that and doesn’t marry her barely deserves Little-Blade.”
“Hey now! Watch it. You are a guest in my shop. Don’t go insulting me!”
“Calm down, Little-Blade! I’m just funnin’ with you. Say, why don’t we get a drink and catch up on old times?”
“Sure, sounds like fun. I’ve got some stuff I’ve got to put away in the back; then we can go over to the SSSS.”
“‘Wha!? The Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe? Is that where all the heroes in Dream Valley hang out?”
“Actually, yes. In fact, everyone in Dream Valley hangs out there.”
Sitting Bull followed Brightblade into the back room where the small wooden box sat on the work bench. When Sitting Bull saw it, his eyes went wide. “Little-Blade, I’ll give you twenty jangles for that box!”
“Uh, the price is only ten.”
“Fine then, make it thirty!”
“You don’t seem to get the point of haggling, Bullhorn.”
“Yeah, whatever. Fifty jangles is my final offer!”
“Alright, I’ll take your money. Would you mind if I re-attach the trim before you take possession?”
“That won’t be necessary, Little-Blade. I know the guy who made it.”
“You’re kidding! This thing must be close to one hundred years old!”
“Yeah. Grandfather has been around for a while.”
“Your grandfather made this?”
“No, an old beaver that everybody calls Grandfather. It’s like his name.”
“Whatever. Here you go.” Brightblade handed his old friend the antique box. “That will be fifty jangles.”
“Right, well, I don’t have the money on me. Why don’t you come along tomorrow when I show it to Grandfather. We’ll stop by my place along the way and pick up the money.”
“Um, okay. I’ll have to call Medley and ask her to watch the shop tomorrow.”
* * *
A short time later, the two friends sat at the SSSS reminiscing about their childhood. “And remember that time we were playing cowboys and Indians and you almost hanged yourself? Ha, that was a hoot!”
“Hey, Brightblade!” Their conversation was cut short by the arrival of Medley. “Who’s your new friend?”
“Oh, hi Medley. He’s not a new friend; Sitting Bull and I grew up together. Sitting Bull, this is my girlfriend, Medley.”
“So you’re who’s tryin’ to get this guy to settle down, eh? Well, I wish you luck.”
Medley giggled. “Why, thank you, Mr. Sitting Bull. He’s being very stubborn, though. Maybe you could help me soften him up?”
“Well, I’ve been working on him. Tomorrow he’s going to meet my wife and once he sees how happy the two of us are together, I’m sure he won’t be able to propose fast enough!”
“Hey, Medley, would you mind watching the shop tomorrow while Sitting Bull and I take care of some business?”
“Sure, no problem. And Sitting Bull, make sure he picks out a nice ring. See you later!”
“Bullhorn, did you have to encourage her like that?”
“You weren’t doing anything, Little-Blade. I was just doing you a favor. Speaking of favors, mind if I crash at your place tonight? If I walked all the way home I wouldn’t get there until midnight and since we’ll be headed that way anyway on our way to Grandfather’s…”
“Sure.”
* * *
The next morning the two friends set out together. By noon they had arrived at Sitting Bull’s home, a large building with a sign reading “The Sweat Lodge”. Brightblade stared in amazement. “When you mentioned the ‘Sweat Lodge’ yesterday I thought you were talking about a traditional Native Pony sauna, but this is a gymnasium!”
“Yeah, a bison’s gotta make a living. There’s a lot of money in personal fitness. Come on, I actually live out back.”
The large bison led his friend around the gymnasium. Behind the large building was a modest home. Two little boy bison ran around in the front lawn. “Hey kids, Daddy’s home!” the boisterous bison called out. The two youngsters came running.
“Daddy, Daddy! What did you bring us?” asked the younger of the two.
Sitting Bull grinned and put his forehooves behind his back. “I know I’ve got something for you here somewhere.” He pulled his hooves out from behind his back and handed each of his sons a candy bar. “Now don’t let your mother see you eating those.”
The younger son took his candy and ran off. The elder son looked at Brightblade for awhile and said, “So this is Brightblade, the great warrior? He looks more like a Little-Blade to me.” And with that, he too ran off while Sitting Bull laughed heartily.
“Come on, buddy, I’ve got to introduce you to Running Water and little Bubbling Brook.” As they approached the front door, it swung open. Standing in the doorway was Sitting Bull’s wife, holding their little daughter in her arms. “Honey, I’m home!” Sitting Bull bellowed.
“I can see that. Just like I saw you give the boys candy right before dinner.”
“They’re growing boys; they need the energy. And this is my old buddy, Little-Blade.”
“My name’s Brightblade. And I’m glad to meet you, Running Water.”
“Likewise. Why don’t you two come in and sit down. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.”
* * *
After dinner, and a long-winded explanation of why he needed fifty jangles to pay for Grandfather’s box (Brightblade didn’t volunteer any information on how Sitting Bull argued the price up from ten), Sitting Bull and Brightblade set out for Grandfather’s remote home. They went up into the wooded hills and came to a vast lake in a shallow valley. “Grandfather’s lodge is about halfway around the lake,” Sitting Bull explained. The lodge was actually on an island accessed by a rickety old wooden bridge. Across the bridge was a humble lodge built in the traditional way. Sitting Bull pushed aside the colorful blanket hanging in the doorway, rattling a set of wind chimes in the process. “Grandfather! You home? It’s me, Sitting Bull.”
“Come in, Sitting Bull,” came a squeaky old voice from the shadowy interior of the lodge. “And the Warpony, also.”
Brightblade and Sitting Bull had to duck their heads to get through the doorway. The lodge was lit by a single oil lamp made from a gourd hanging from the rafters, along with numerous bags, trinkets, and foodstuffs. A large colorful blanket was laid out on the floor. Sitting on the edge of the blanket across from the doorway was a little gray beaver. The two visitors sat down on the blanket.
“Grandfather, I found this on my trip to Dream Valley. I was hoping you could fix the broken trim.” Sitting Bull set the box on the blanket.
Grandfather reached out and lifted the lid. “Where it the talisman that was in the box?”
Sitting Bull looked at Brightblade, who shrugged. “That box was empty when I bought the antique store. And I don’t remember any talismans.”
The old beaver shook his head. “This is not good. The evil spirit that I imprisoned in that box is free again and he will remain free until the talisman is returned.”
“Evil spirit?” Sitting Bull was dumbfounded.
“Wendigo,” said Grandfather. “Years ago I bound him to the talisman and sealed it, and him, into this box. Now the seal has been broken and the talisman lost.” He pointed a long bony finger at Brightblade. “You must recover the talisman and bring it to me so that I can re-seal it.”
“What! Why me?”
“You have the Warrior’s Horn. With it, you will be able to subdue Wendigo.” Grandfather took up a gnarled stick and lifted a pouch from its rafter peg. He rummaged through the pouch and produced a scroll which he unrolled on the blanket before him. On the scroll was a drawing of a three-legged pony and a crude map. “That is the talisman, and this map shows where I found his lair when I defeated him so long ago. He may have returned to his old lair,” the ancient beaver explained.
“All right, but it’ll take a while. I’ll have to go all the way back to Dream Valley to get the Horn.”
“We should go back to my place for the night and head for Dream Valley first thing in the morning, Little-Blade.”
“Thanks, Bullhorn. Don’t worry, Grandfather. We will get the talisman back!”
* * *
The two friends arrived at Brightblade’s antique shop about an hour before noon the next day. “Hey, Brightblade! How was your trip?” Medley greeted them.
“Very interesting, and not entirely in a good way,” the Warpony replied.
“Huh?”
“I’ll fill you in on the details later. Right now I need the Warrior’s Horn.”
“What! What would you need that for!?”
“Just some evil spirit that needs puttin’ down,” replied Sitting Bull. “Nothin’ to worry yourself about.”
Brightblade called Sitting Bull into the back room, “Hey Bullhorn, come here and give me a hand.”
“Yeah, Little-Blade, I’m comin’.”
“Wait a minute! What are you talking about?” Medley called after the bison.
“Can’t talk now, we’ve got guy stuff to take care of.”
Moments later, in the back room, Brightblade handed Sitting Bull a large leatherbound ledger. “What’s this for?” the bison asked.
“The old mare who owned this place before me kept meticulous records. I want you to see if you can find any reference to the talisman while I get the Horn.”
“This book is huge! How do you expect me to find anything in there?”
“Just give it a look. If you do find something, it might give us a clue that will help find Wendigo.”
“Yeah, okay. Just hurry up with that horn. I can’t wait to finally see it.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t be long.” Brightblade went down into the basement. It was too damp down here to store any valuable antiques, but the Warrior’s Horn was not affected by the dampness. Brightblade made his way to the far corner of the room where a large safe sat. He turned the knob, right, then left, then right again. The heavy door swung open. Inside the safe was a box. Brightblade lifted the box out and set it on the floor. He opened the box and pushed aside the paper wrapping that concealed the gleaming steel of the Warrior’s Horn. Closing the box and the safe, Brightblade returned upstairs. “I’ve got it. Did you find anything, Bullhorn?”
“Yeah Little-Blade. At least I think I did. This one entry is written in red ink. ‘Hand Carved Figurine: SOLD - 3 jangles’. The date is fifty years ago.”
“Fifty years? Wendigo has been loose for that long? You’d think he would have caused some trouble that we would have heard of since then.”
“Maybe. But these spirits can be strange that way. They hate being imprisoned but they don’t mind waiting. He could be waiting for Grandfather to die so he can’t imprison him again. Or maybe he’s building his strength. Whatever the case, we can’t underestimate him.”
“Right. Let’s have a look at Grandfather’s map, and see where he’s supposed to be.”
“See where who’s supposed to be?” Medley asked.
“Aren’t you supposed to be watching the shop?”
“I closed it for the day. What kind of girlfriend would I be if I didn’t worry about my boyfriend? Especially when he’s talking about hunting evil spirits?”
“Dang, Little-Blade, if you don’t marry her soon, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”
“Medley, we are hunting an evil spirit named Wendigo. He was imprisoned by a shaman a long time ago and fifty years ago he escaped. All we have to go on is an old map showing where the shaman caught him last time. That’s what’s going on. As long as I have the Warrior’s Horn, I shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with Wendigo. The problem may be finding him. If you want to help, while Bullhorn and I are checking out his old lair, you can go to the library and look up the newspapers from fifty years ago and see if anything unusual happened. It could turn out to be our only lead to find him.”
“Wow. You talk about this stuff like it’s an everyday thing. I’m kind of overwhelmed.”
Brightblade shrugged. “Well, I’ve had some experience with this sort of thing. What’s your excuse, Bullhorn?”
“I was brought up on stories about evil spirits like Wendigo, most of them coming from Grandfather himself. I guess I just took it for granted that that sort of stuff was real, even though I had never seen any of it myself.”
Medley was confused. “That’s the second time you’ve mentioned Grandfather. Who is he?”
“He is the shaman who imprisoned Wendigo; and once we find Wendigo, he is gong to have to imprison him again.”
“He’s still alive? If Wendigo just escaped fifty years ago then he must have been imprisoned longer ago then that, Grandfather must be…”
“Yeah, he’s really old. Now, Little-Blade and I really need to be going.”
“Oh, right. Well, I should get to the library then. See you two in a day or two?”
Brightblade nodded. “Yeah. And Medley, I…”
Sitting Bull grabbed Brightblade by the shoulders and dragged him from the antique store. “Come on, we’ve got a Wendigo to catch; this is no time to get emotional.”
“Bullhorn, I will never understand you. You get on my case for not marrying her and when I try to tell her something important, you cut me off!”
“There is a time for romance and there is a time for action. Now is the time for action! Now can I see the Horn, please? You’re not going to keep it boxed up all the way to the lair, are you?”
“I’m not going to wear the horn around Dream Valley. Once we’re out of town I’ll put it on.”
“Great, then let’s pick up the pace!” The large bison grabbed the pony and ran full tilt to the edge of town. Sitting Bull finally stopped in a grassy field just outside of Dream Valley. “Okay, let’s see it.” he panted.
“Alright.” Brightblade pulled the gleaming helm from its box. The whorled horn reflected the sunlight in all directions. The Warpony set the mystic relic upon his head. The horn began to glow faintly.
Sitting Bull was mesmerized. “Ooo! Does it always do that?”
“K’haar!” The calm of the day was shattered by the call of a raven. “The Warrior’s Horn only glows when there is evil about! Is that not so, Warpony?”
“Breeks, my old fried! I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“So, the loudmouth bird really is a friend of yours. What was his name again, Beek? Beeks?”
“His name is Breeks, Bullhorn. And he is a friend of mine, and a great warrior.”
“Kaw! That is true, Warpony. So, why have you set out on another glorious quest without asking my aid? You’d not even have the horn if it weren’t for me. How can you hope to subdue Wendigo without me?”
“How do you know about Wendigo?” Sitting Bull asked.
“Grandfather told me. He asked me to help you.”
“What! How do you know Grandfather?”
“K’raw! He is a wise beaver. He sought me out some time ago and has enlisted my services on several occasions.”
“Oh, so you’re the one he’s had delivering his medicinal herbs to the infirm.”
“K’haaw!”
“Breeks, Bullhorn, cut it out. We’ve got a job to do.”
The trio set out, the light from the Warrior’s Horn guiding them toward the point marked on Grandfather’s map. They followed a river through an ancient wood toward its source. High on a hillside the river flowed out of the mouth of a cave. But the horn guided them further, over the crest of the hill and down the other side. There they found a damp depression full of brush and brambles. In the center of the depression was a dome shaped structure woven out of branches.
“What do we do, Little-Blade? Just rush in or go in cautious-like?”
“K’raaa, that’s what I’m here for!” Breeks flew off over the brush toward the dome. Brightblade Warpony stood ready. Through the Warrior’s Horn he could sense the darkness in the center of the depression. The raven circled the dome several times and finally landed on the uppermost member of the structure. He poked his head down through the tightly twisted branches.
“Be ready, Sitting Bull,” Brightblade cautioned his friend.
“Yeah, I’m with ya on that.”
Suddenly Breeks pulled his head from the woven dome and took to the air. “Kaaa! Here he comes!”
A low, rumbling growl came from the dome. The structure began to sway as a massive beast forced its way out of the dense branches. It was humanoid, covered in shaggy brown hair. Its fingers were tipped with razor claws and jagged fangs framed its gaping maw. It tore through the brush toward the Warpony and bison as if it were tearing through paper. The Horn glowed brighter as the beast drew nearer, but it did not slow. Brightblade stood his ground as Wendigo came close enough to lash out at the pony. Its claws rended the air but entirely missed Brightblade, who had leapt out of the way. As Wendigo attacked the Warpony, Sitting Bull charged, head-butting it on the knee. Wendigo cried out in pain; and while he was distracted, Brightblade charged. Wendigo raised his claws for another attack, but before he could strike, the Warrior’s Horn flashed brightly. The beast was thrown to the ground and as he lay amidst the shredded brush, he began to fade away.
Brightblade, Sitting Bull, and Breeks approached the fallen beast carefully. To their surprise, they found laying amidst the destruction not a hairy beast, but a young pony. She was white with bright blue main and tail. On her rump was the symbol of a campfire. “Who do you suppose she is?” Sitting Bull asked.
Brightblade pointed to the talisman bound about her neck with a rawhide thong. “She’s the one who bought the talisman fifty years ago.” With a quick flick of the Warrior’s Horn, Brightblade cut the thong and the talisman fell to the ground.
The young pony began to stir. She slowly sat up and looked at the warriors standing over her (including the one perched on the bison’s horn). “Who…who are y’all?”
“We’re friends,” said Brightblade as he held out his forehoof to help her up. “I am Brightblade, and these are Sitting Bull and Breeks.”
Sitting Bull bowed his head. “We’re just some good folk coming to the aid of a damsel in distress. By the way, what’s your name?”
“Oh, I’m…I…I can’t remember!” She began to sob.
“Hey now, don’t cry!” Brightblade put his forelegs around her to comfort her. “Once we get back to Dream Valley, we’ll find out who you are. But right now we have to get you to Grandfather.” He led the young pony out of the depression. “Sitting Bull, grab the talisman.”
“What! You want me to touch it? That thing’s cursed!”
Breeks flew down and picked it up in his beak. “Kaaa! What was it he called you? Bullhorn? Seems a fitting name.”
“Why, you little feather-duster! You’re not riding out of here on my horn. No sir!”
Breeks flew up to Brightblade and perched on the Warrior’s Horn. The triumphant heros and the young damsel headed west, guided by the Horn toward Grandfather’s lodge. It was midnight by the time they arrived.
Inside they found Grandfather waiting for them. In front of him sat a brazier and the box. Brightblade and Sitting Bull sat down across the brazier from Grandfather, and the young pony sat between them. Breeks hopped from the Horn to the ground next to the old beaver. He bowed and presented him with the talisman. “Put it in the box,” Grandfather instructed. Breeks dropped the talisman into the box and flew up and perched in the rafters. Grandfather took a pawful of powder from a pouch and threw it onto the hot coals in the brazier. A puff of smoke rose from the coals and filled the room. Grandfather began to chant.
“What’s goin’ on? I’m scared!” The young pony began to fidget nervously.
Brightblade tried to comfort her. “Calm down. It’ll all be over shortly.”
“No! I’ve got to get out of here!” She tried to get up but Brightblade restrained her. “Let go of me!” the white pony growled in an unnatural voice.
“Sitting Bull! Help me hold her down!” The two warriors held the tormented pony as she writhed in agony. Breeks joined Grandfather in his chanting as Wendigo struggled to maintain his hold on his victim. Finally, Grandfather threw another pawful onto the coals and with another burst of smoke, everything was calm. The aged beaver reached out and gently closed the lid to the box. The young pony passed out.
Grandfather bowed. “It is done.”
* * *
The warriors and Wendigo’s victim spent the night at Grandfather’s. The next morning they set out bright and early for Dream Valley. Medley awaited them at the antique store when they arrived that afternoon. “Brightblade! You made it back!”
“Yeah, Medley. Everything’s fine now. Well, just about.”
“Oh? And who are your new friends?”
“The bird is Breeks; remember, I’ve told you about him. The girl is a bit of a problem. We figure she was possessed by Wendigo fifty years ago. She doesn’t remember who she is, though.”
“I think I can help you with that. When I was looking for strange news from fifty years ago, I found a story about a disappearance. A sixteen-year-old girl named Marshmallow.”
The young pony stepped forward. “Marshmallow? Is that my name?”
“It could be. And for the time being it’s as good a name as any. Don’t you think, Brightblade?”
“Sure. Marshmallow is a fine name. Eh, Bullhorn, why don’t you and Breeks take Marshmallow down to the SSSS and get her something to eat?”
“All right, Little-Blade, but aren’t you coming?”
“Yeah, Brightblade, aren’t we going?” Medley complained.
Brightblade smiled. “We’ll catch up. I’ve got something important to take care of that I need your help with.”
Sitting Bull nodded. “Oh, I get it. Come on, Marshmallow. Brightblade and Medley need to take care of this.” The bison led young Marshmallow out of the shop with Breeks riding on his horn.
“So, Brightblade, what’s this important business you need my help with so much?”
Brightblade walked around to the back of the counter. “Well, Sitting Bull was bugging me all the way home, and by halfway he even had Marshmallow in on it.” He bent over and opened the small safe under the counter. “I guess there’s no time like the present, even though I hadn’t planned on it happening this way.” He took a small package from the safe. “Uh, I was waiting till I was sure I was ready for this.”
“Oh, would you just get on with it and propose already!”
“All right, Medley, will you marry me?” Brightblade handed her the package from the safe.
“Yes, Brightblade, I would love to marry you.”
“You haven’t even looked at the ring yet.”
“I don’t need to. As long as it comes from you, I’m sure it’ll be perfect.” Medley opened the ring box and her eyes went wide with amazement. “It’s gorgeous! How did you ever afford such a ring?”
“Well, actually, it was in the shop when I bought it. I found it mixed in with a bunch of costume jewelry back when we were cleaning the place up for the grand re-opening. It was then that I decided to ask you to marry me but the time just never seemed right.”
Medley gave Brightblade a kiss. “I’m glad you finally did ask. If you took too much longer I might have given up on you.”
“I really owe Sitting Bull a big thank you. Speaking of which, shall we join the party at the SSSS?”
“Sounds like fun, but are you going to wear that out in public?”
“Wha?” Brightblade had completely forgotten that he was wearing the Warrior’s Horn.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Welcome to Ponyland
Part 3
by Skye (SkyeSpirit@aol.com)

“The others proved to be unworthy, Compassion,” Light replied to the gathered. Her heart heavy with disappointment, she flickered before them.
“Not unworthy, just ignorant,” Compassion stated, bowing her head with respect. “They live in peace now in the Flower Valley; at least that is something. It is true they do not understand their purpose and powers, but that is to be expected under these circumstances.”
“It has always been done this way before, Compassion,” Light told her. “We do not force these responsibilities upon others; they must choose to bear this commitment themselves.”
“Yes, we understand that; but you cannot expect them to understand these responsibilities when they do not even understand where they came from or why they are here,” Patience defended.
“You ask too much from them. They were not born as other creatures in this land. They were made for a purpose, but without the intelligence to understand it. They cannot be blamed for their behavior,” Loyalty stated defiantly.
“We gave them the land and the castle. What more do they need?” Perfection demanded, disagreeing with the others.
“Excuse me, but Urth gave them the land; only the castle did we provide,” Truth corrected.
“Give them a history, a function, a purpose, whatever it will take. Put them to use. Give them what they need and ask for them to perform their tasks in return,” Compassion continued with her own recommendations. “If an education is what they need, then give them that, too.”
“I say use the originals; they are the ideal ones,” Perfection suggested, preferring the ones she had designed. “Get rid of these current ones if they do not suit our needs.”
“They have not been given a chance,” Compassion tried to explain. “Please, can we merge and settle this once and for all?”
“We already have settled this matter,” Light told her. “A merge is not needed. You all know where you are needed most at this time. For all of you, it is a different path. Find your places and hope that they will guide you to the best choice. Compassion, if you do not like the outcome for these creatures, then take your supporters and change it. You have my permission. Educate them if you must. Do as you like; a decision will be made soon enough with the test. Dark will not wait much longer; he is already making his own preparations. Time is running short.”
“I agree with Light; you also have my permission,” Balance declared, speaking for the first time since being summoned. Compassion nodded and bowed once again before leaving the room, and four others followed her.
* * *
The pink pony within the castle was no doubt downed. Her knees hurt so terribly she didn’t try to stand any longer, although she felt she should. Blood trickled from her wounds, and the nearby animals closed in on her to inspect the injuries for themselves. She balked and grunted at them, warning them to keep their distance; but the creatures did not understand her language. When they approached closer, she tried to rise once again. Pain shot through her knees and legs. She laid back down and didn’t try to move any longer.
The Swan was gone for some time, but it eventually returned and entered back into the castle. She too inspected the injuries, the other animals politely moving aside for the much larger bird. The bird backed away from the pony and left the castle.
* * *
The blue pony awoke to many sounds around her. Her eyes flung open and she tried to move her legs, but they were tight and stiff. Her natural instincts told her to run, flee, or fight. She had to suppress these as she just could not perform any action at all save moving her head from side to side.
Her first day in this new place had been a terrible one. First she found herself trapped in a strange, cold, hard place with other creatures around her. She didn’t know what or who they were and was afraid of them. She gathered her legs quickly enough, but look where they led her– into light so brilliant it blinded her stinging sensitive eyes. Then suddenly they came out from under her, only to find herself in a place where she could not breathe and was so cold it made her shudder just thinking about it. Now she lay paralyzed and surrounded by many strange creatures she did not know or trust.
New sounds found her ears and new smells entered into her nostrils. For a confused little pony, it was just all too much for her. She tried to think back to a time before she found herself in this place. She could not. As far as she knew, nothing existed before her arrival to this startling, cruel place. She had not been here long in this place, and she already knew she did not like it.
Having no other choice, she tried to calm down. There was an uncomfortable pounding in her chest that made it ache when fear entered into her mind. She realized that she was a prisoner– if not to these creatures around her, then to her own body that would not heed her commands.
She moved and stretched the aching muscles in her neck enough to where she could view her captors. She found many sleeping bodies around her. Little did she know that they had helped to keep her warm after her battle with the river. Many creatures of all kinds laid side by side, many with different colors, shapes, and sizes. They slept against her, curled up in tight little balls, their fur touching her own thin furred coating.
Upon her inspection, she found it was warm and soft, creating a pleasant sensation she soon admitted. She liked it so much she nuzzled, smelled, and then tasted those she could reach. She nibbled at her closest neighbor, a small, brown rabbit, its fur tickling her nose. The rabbit woke from the rubbing and slight tugging at its coat. It scowled and grumbled at its own nearest neighbor, a raccoon, then went back to sleep. The raccoon grumbled back before continuing his own restful afternoon nap.
Blue Belle touched and tasted many of the animal’s fur and then her immediate surroundings. She smelled deeply the moist earth; its scent made her nose tingle and that too felt good. She found a flower nearby, a simple daisy, and smelled its scent. The aroma was delectable but its taste was bitter. The grass surrounding it was not. She sampled it many times, tasting, chewing, and then swallowing. The grasses own juices made her mouth water. Once the first few bites hit her stomach, it rumbled for more. The churning made her pause and listen to the noises.
The sounds of ripping grass woke the others and the rabbits joined her side and ate along with her. She watched the little creatures with interest and found herself to be delighted at the company. The raccoons grew bored and played in a nearby bush. The noises they made were strange to her ears, but she was no longer afraid they were there to hurt her.
The last to wake was an old badger who had been snoring very loudly. The blue pony laughed, discovering another delightful sensation. She did it again and woke the badger, who noticed everyone had been eating without him. He snarled, believing he was missing out on something, and began rooting around for bugs and grubs. She watched with interest as he dug up the ground to find little wiggly creatures. Once acquiring his prize, he bit off their heads before devouring the bodies. She shuddered and shook her head in disgust, just as the rabbits had done, then turned away from the site and continued to eat.
The rabbit family approached the water. This made the pony very nervous and she neighed to her friends to stay away and return to her. The rabbits had their fill of water, grass, and the pony’s company, and they left for the day. Night was approaching in a short while and work was to be done. The pony wanted to follow the little bunnies, but she could still not stand. Her commotion angered the badger so he, too, left. Now she was alone and she began to cry as her heart sank. Water filled her eyes, causing them to blur, and the excess trickled down her cheeks. She called again to her new friends but was not given an answer.
* * *
The green pony had trotted up to the top of the hill. She circled the large tree that sang songs of welcome to her. She could not understand its language but watched as the leaves shook along the branches. She trotted in circles, kicking up her hooves and jumping small branches that lay upon the ground. She was so relieved to be free of the castle’s restraints that she played around the Ancient Apple as a foal would.
A leaf fell from the tree and she sprinted up to it, caught it in her mouth, and charged around the tree. She played a game with herself, dodging an invisible culprit who might take the prize from her mouth. The wind investigated and chased her around, but she didn’t seem to be aware of its presence.
She caught a second, third, and finally fourth in her mouth. When going for a fifth leaf, she slipped on an apple and rolled across the ground. The green laid sprawled out upon the ground, her head and neck covered in squished apples. She stood, shook, and licked her legs and body. The wet parts were sweet and it wasn’t long before she discovered the tasty apples to be the source.
* * *
The two violet ponies sparred in the field beyond the castle. The one with hearts on her rump had remembered the other causing her pain, and took it personally. She kicked and spun at the other, landing a blow in the chest. The one bearing white flowers on her rump screamed as she reared and sent her hooves down upon the other’s back. Again the first lashed out, landing another blow in the chest of her opponent. The second charged, and they both came tumbling down. The darker of the purple ponies chased the other through the field.
* * *
Butterscotch continued to run along the riverbank. Her own reflection caught her attention and she tried to beat it in a race to an unknown destination. The reflection, just a step ahead of her the whole way, angered her and she ran faster. Eventually tiring of all the running and the race, she charged at the reflection. Flying hooves landed in the shallow water. She only ended up splashing herself and grew angrier. She jumped at her reflective self in the river and stomped around trying to destroy her nuisance. She slid in the slippery bottom several times and grew even more angry each time. The water clouded around her and fish scattered at the commotion.
Butterscotch stood for a moment, looking at the cast reflection. She moved her head and it did the same. She tried biting at the reflection and ended up swallowing a mouthful of water. She was so angry she did not even notice how sweet the water was.
She jumped out of the cold water and ran away from the reflective surface. She looked around for her stalker but only found it at the surface’s water edge. She didn’t understand that it was herself that she was trying to battle with. She stood for a moment, trying to comprehend what was happening and what was gazing back at her in the water.
* * *
The lonely pony continued to sob. Her new friends did not return to her and she quickly discovered that being alone was worse than being afraid. Something caressed her mane and she turned to discover it was not one of her new friends but another creature entirely different. She screamed out in surprise but the new creature only leaned against her and smiled. The pony screamed again and tried to stand up.
“Are you really that afraid of me? I’m not here to scare you; I can leave you alone again if you want me to,” the creature said mischievously.
The pony was about to scream again when she realized she understood the words the creature spoke. The creature smiled again, put two hands underneath her head, and sat there staring at the pony. She looked at the pony as if waiting for an answer. Blue Belle said nothing, only stared back.
“What’s you name? It’s what you call yourself. It’s the name you know deep within yourself. Come on, try to say it.”
“Blue Belle,” the pony said slowly, softly.
“Yes, it is. I picked it out myself. Do you like it?” The pony looked at the creature, blinking in disbelief. “You’re wondering what I am, aren’t you?” Blue Belle’s eyes widened. “My name is Compassion. I’m known to the animals as a Wish Fairy; that’s not really what I am, but that is not important now. What is important is that you trust me and call me friend. Yes, you know what that means, don’t you?” Blue Belle’s mind raced with questions, this creature answering them usually before she could voice them.”
“The water,” Blue Belle began, tears swelling in her eyes again.
The Wish Fairy hugged her and the contact soothed the pony, her emotions settling. “We were not allowed to interfere before or with the others before you. We had to wait until Balance and Light could agree. Now that we have permission, she has sent us to you for a short while. Your purpose here is very important, Blue Belle, and I have chosen you to guide.”
“Why? What purpose?”
“You are most like me and I like you. Your purpose will be explained later; there is still time for that, but in the meantime you should rest. We will have a big day tomorrow. Now sleep; I will watch over you.” She placed gentle fingers on Blue Belle’s forehead and the pony, brimming with questions, fell silent. Her head slowly dropped into Compassion’s lap and she slept, soundly and fitfully. “Soon, Blue Belle, you will understand,” Compassion told the slumbering pony.
* * *
A little chipmunk, bravest of the gathered group, approached and took the closest and longest inspection of the damaged knees. The pink pony was ready to lash out if need be, but the small rodent was intelligent enough not to touch her. He turned and squeaked something to the others, and the entire group left the castle. They returned shortly after with food for the pony, then left her alone for what was left of the day.
* * *
When darkness finally crept over the land, the world grew quiet and the ponies grew afraid. They huddled in their places of rest wondering where they were and what they were doing there. Even the violets who had been battling throughout the day huddled together, the darkness replacing their hatred with fear. Something was coming and though they did not know what it was or when it would strike, they knew enough to be afraid of it.
* * *
In a place some distance away, a sleeper awoke from a deep, fitful rest. Well past dusk, a brilliant moon shone high in the cloudy night sky. Her lovely violet eyes gazed at the beauty of the night air but were suddenly filled with despair. Her head lowered, and pink curls fell around her cheeks. She began to sob as the others began to stir from their fanciful dream states. “It’s almost time,” she whispered to herself.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Starcross
Chapter 2: The Road
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)

Starcross cried the night away in the jail cell. Her father had died, but not before telling her that he was not her father. And she had let her guard down as a result. Now that she was in jail, she couldn’t make the trip to Dream Valley to find out if what her father had said was true.
* * *
The next morning, Officer Smoky and Starcross’ aunt Sylva came to the cell door. “Good morning, child,” said Sylva. “Officer Smoky has agreed to let you out for the funeral, but he will be chaperoning you.”
“Aunty Sylva, I’m sorry for causing so much trouble. I…I’ll behave myself. I promise.”
“I know you will. Now we’ve got to get you home to get ready for the funeral.”
Office Smoky opened the cell. The three ponies walked to the trailer park.
* * *
The sky was gray as the ponies gathered for the funeral. Starcross, Sylva, Zuggy, Smoky, and most of the ponies from the trailer park looked on as the casket was carried to the grave. There were a few other ponies there who weren’t from the park, mostly business owners who Starcross’ father had worked for; Mrs. Pear was among them. They gathered around the grave to hear the priest’s blessing.
“Guthry was a good pony and we are all better for having known him. He loved our community…”
Starcross was too sad to listen to the priest’s words. Her mind was full of doubt and fear over what her father had told her on his death bed. She wondered what answers awaited her in Dream Valley. She wondered if she would ever have the chance to seek those answers.
And then it was over. Her father’s casket was lowered into the ground. Aunt Sylva cried. Starcross realized that her eyes were dry. She hadn’t cried.
As the crowd dispersed, Mrs. Pear came over to Starcross, Aunt Sylva, and Smokey. “Starcross, I’m sorry about your father, and, well… I’ve decided to forgive you. I’m dropping the charges. Officer Smokey, I know it will take some time to do the paperwork, but do you think you could let her go right now? She’s suffered enough for one day.”
Starcross couldn’t believe what she was hearing. A moment ago her father’s dying wish had been beyond her grasp, but now it seemed easily within her grip. She felt the tears welling up in her eyes.
Smoky shook his head. “I don’t know. I could get in trouble with my boss.”
Aunt Sylva put her forehoof on Smoky’s shoulder. “Everyone on the police force knew and respected Guthry. I’m sure they’d understand.”
“Yeah, I guess. But, Mrs. Pear, you’ll have to come right down to the station with me and take care of that paperwork.”
“Of course.”
“Thank you!” Starcross sobbed.
* * *
The cold rain came down hard as Starcross galloped across the field. She was almost to the next town, where she could hopefully find someplace warm and dry to sleep. The streets of the town were deserted. The local ponies were huddled in their homes, waiting for the weather to improve. Starcross skulked through the streets, looking for any shelter from the storm. When she reached the town square, she found a gazebo. It provided little shelter from the wind-borne rain, but it was better than nothing.
Shortly after Starcross had settled into the relative shelter of the gazebo, another pony came galloping up the steps onto the gazebo. He shook the rain from his coat and threw off his hood. Looking around, he noticed Starcross huddled in the corner. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there. I didn’t get you wet, did I?”
Starcross smiled shyly. “No, not really. I was already pretty wet.”
“Well that’s good to hear… not that you’re wet, I mean…”
“I think I understand. By the way, my name’s Starcross.”
“I’m Will. Nice to meet you. So, what brings you out on such a fine day?”
“I’m on a trip, to Dream Valley. I’m…going to visit with family.”
“Hey, me too! Well, sort of, and in Friendship Gardens, not Dream Valley. But they’re right next to each other. We could keep each other company on the road.”
“I don’t know. I prefer to fend for myself.”
“Come on, the trip will go faster is you’ve got someone to talk to.”
“I’m not in any hurry. In fact, I’m not really looking forward to this reunion. But my Papa, he wanted…”
“Hey Starcross, are you okay?”
Starcross was huddled into a ball, sobbing. Will sat down next to Starcross and put his forelegs around her and comforted her until the rain stopped.
As the sun came out and began to dry the rain, Starcross, who had fallen asleep, awoke and looked around. Will still held her in his forelegs. “Are you okay?” he asked.
Starcross nodded. “Yes. Thank you. Do you know what time it is?”
“It’s late. The sun will be setting soon. We should find a better place to spend the night than here.”
“You go on, I’ll make my own arrangements.”
“Are you sure? I still think it would be a good idea to travel together.”
“No. I really appreciate what you did for me, but I have to do this on my own. Just like always.” Starcross stood up and trotted off the gazebo and across the square.
Will stood and watched her go, feeling sorry for her and helpless to do anything about it. “Well, maybe we’ll meet again some day!”
Starcross paused and smiled. “I’ll keep an eye out for you.”
* * *
Starcross spent the night in a dry, warm, though not-too-comfortable jail cell. She knew just what to do to get locked up for the night. It was cheaper than staying in a motel, and they usually gave you at least one hot meal. The next morning she set out again for Dream Valley. She didn’t want to start too early so as to give Will plenty of a head start. It wasn’t that she didn’t like him; he was probably the nicest guy she knew. But she just wanted to be left alone for the time being. Maybe after she got to Dream Valley and had met her family, she would feel like talking. Then she could look him up in Friendship Gardens.
She came to a small town shortly after midday. It looked like it would be an easy enough place to get a free room for the night, so she decided not to go any further. It would also give Will more of a lead on her. Then she could move on without worry.
The next day Starcross made good time. By nightfall, she was only half a day from Dream Valley. There was no town in sight; but the weather was nice, so tonight she would sleep under the stars.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Cocklebur’s Crush
by Tabby (TabbyMLP@aol.com)

“Tabby,” Cocklebur’s urgent voice came over the phone line, “I’m really worried about Purr. He... he doesn’t look too good.” The colt’s voice cracked on this last part.
Tabby immediately dropped the pen she had been writing down some notes with when the call had come into her office. She could tell that Cocklebur was especially distraught, indicating something serious. “Is he eating?” she demanded.
“Well, no... I gave him his food this morning before I left for school but he didn’t touch it. And the discharge from his eyes is really bad. Could you... could you come over and take a look?”
“Of course,” Tabby said kindly. “Just make Purr as comfortable as you can. I’ll be there in a minute.”
“Thanks, Tabby.”
Tabby hung up the phone carefully, considering the situation. She knew Cocklebur had gotten especially attached to the stray kitten he had found several weeks ago, named Purr due to his highly affectionate nature. Cocklebur frequently came to Tabby for advice on how to care for his various animals, and Tabby had been watching Purr’s condition carefully. He had a severe upper respiratory infection and didn’t seem to be improving. She was afraid he wouldn’t last much longer even with Cocklebur’s careful attention. Cocklebur would be heartbroken if that happened.
Gathering up some supplies she might be able to make use of, Tabby flew out of the vet clinic after hurriedly explaining the nature of her errand to Thomas. Cocklebur’s neighborhood wasn’t located too far from the clinic, so it didn’t take Tabby more than a few minutes to arrive.
She cut immediately through to the backyard, where she knew Cocklebur would be in his “animal hospital”– a rather dilapidated shed on the property. She found him sitting on the floor amid the piles of cages and aquariums for holding his various creatures. He had a blanket on his lap and was gently stroking the little black and white kitten laying there.
“He’s...” Cocklebur’s voice was little more than a whisper. “I think he’s gone.”
Tabby dropped to her knees and checked for vital signs. “I’m sorry, Cocklebur,” she murmured, not knowing how to console him.
A tear slipped down Cocklebur’s face. “Why couldn’t I save him?” he sobbed. “He was the nicest kitten ever. Why did he have to die?!”
“You did the best you could,” Tabby said quietly, wrapping a foreleg around his shoulder. “There’s nothing anyone could have done. You made his last weeks happy for him, and that’s the best he could ever have asked for.”
Tabby was silent as she allowed her young friend to cry for several minutes. Then, resolutely, he wiped his eyes and stood up. “I’ll dig the grave now,” he said bravely, carrying Purr’s body and picking up a shovel that leaned against the wall. Tabby followed him outside behind the shed, where the ground was decorated with makeshift wooden crosses. This w as the resting place for the few animals Cocklebur encountered that weren’t able to survive their injuries.
They both paused in silence after the deed was done and a new mound of dirt decorated the graveyard. Though he was putting on a brave facade, Tabby could tell that Cocklebur was still very depressed over the death of his friend. “Come with me to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe,” she invited. “I’ll buy.”
Sniffling, Cocklebur acquiesced.
* * *
“Tomorrow I think I’m going to set the ground squirrel free. He had a hurt paw when I found him but he’s healed now,” Cocklebur was saying animatedly. Tabby had managed to draw him out of his sorrow for asking of news of Cocklebur’s other patients, a topic the colt thoroughly enjoyed. “And that litter of raccoons I found in the spring without a mother is getting big; I’ll probably release them soon. The littlest one I was worried about at first, but now she’s just as big as her siblings,” Cocklebur beamed.
“Your ability with animals is really special, you know,” Tabby said earnestly. “Have you thought about what you’re going to be when you grow up?”
“Something to do with animals, I guess.” Cocklebur frowned pensively. “Could I be a vet, like you?”
“I think you’d be great,” Tabby assured him.
Cocklebur brightened, but then his expression turned sober. “The schooling is expensive, though. I probably wouldn’t be able to go on to veterinary college.”
Tabby felt sorry for the colt who already had to be concerned with monetary problems as the eldest child of a financially straitened family. “Well, when you’re older you can get a job and start saving. And if you work hard in school there are scholarship opportunities.”
“Really?” Cocklebur’s face lit up. “You mean I really could be a vet if I worked hard?”
“Of course,” Tabby said in a voice that brooked no argument.
“And once I’m a vet,” Cocklebur said with determination, “I’m going to find a cure for that stupid infection that killed Purr.”
Seeing tears threatening to spill again, Tabby reached across the table and touched his foreleg. “Hey, if you really do want to be a veterinarian, I could start showing you the ropes at the clinic. It’s never too early to start getting experience.”
Cocklebur’s face suddenly broke out in a grin. “You really mean that? That would be awesome!”
“Sure,” Tabby smiled back. “I’ll be your mentor. Just stop in whenever you can and I’ll show you around.”
“Hi, Tabby! I see you’ve dropped Thomas for a younger guy,” Tamara’s voice said mischievously as she appeared at the table.
Tabby giggled. “Hello to you as well, Tammy. Are you acquainted with Cocklebur?”
“I don’t believe I am,” Tamara said curiously.
“Well, Cocklebur, this is my cousin Tamara. And Tamara, this is my newly-appointed protege pet doctor, Cocklebur,” Tabby performed the introductions with a flourish.
“Well, Cocklebur, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” Tamara smiled.
“Yeah,” Cocklebur said shyly. “I mean, uh– it’s nice to meet you, too.”
“As much fun as this is, I’d better be going,” Tamara said, glancing towards the door. “I just came in to buy a bucket of ice cream, and Philippe and Hugh are waiting for me outside. You two have fun!” Winking, she scurried off.
“Is that Baby Leafy waving to you from the table over there?” Tabby queried.
Cocklebur looked over his shoulder at a table full of his classmates. “Oh, it is! I didn’t know they were here.” Quickly he finished off the last of his sundae. “Do you–?”
“Go on, go on,” Tabby shooed him away. “I’m sure you’ve had enough of this boring adult chatter.”
“No!” Cocklebur protested, and then blushed. “I mean– it was fun. Thanks for bringing me. And for your offer. You’re really great.” Before his face turned any more red, he ran off to join his friends.
Tabby smiled indulgently and prepared to go home.
* * *
Baby Leafy looked at Cocklebur suspiciously. “You’re blushing, Cocky.”
“Am not!” Cocklebur retorted.
“Why were you here with Tabby?” Baby Noddins inquired.
“We were talking about animals,” Cocklebur stated. “She’s going to teach me more about becoming a veterinarian.”
Baby Drummer looked at Cocklebur’s heightened color again. “I bet you got a crush on her,” he challenged.
Cocklebur glared at his friend. “Do not,” he protested.
Drummer stuck his tongue out. “I think you do. You’re weird. Girls are boring.”
“Hey, don’t tease Cocky!” Baby Leafy intervened. “He can hang out with Tabby if he wants to.”
“And what do you mean, girls are boring?” Baby Noddins glared daggers at her erstwhile playmate.
“Well, you are.”
“Grr... I’ll get you for that, Drummer! You’re as bad as Leaper!” Drummer just stuck out his tongue again. Cocklebur and Leafy both rolled their eyes.
* * *
On Monday, after Cocklebur had sat impatiently through a session of summer school and made his daily rounds with his animals, he headed off to the clinic for Tabby’s promised instructions.
He opened the door and found himself in the waiting room, but became a bit flustered as the receptionist eyed him suspiciously. “Can I help you?” she said, looking down at him from behind the desk.
“Um, I’m here to see Tabby,” the colt stammered.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No, but–”
“Then I’m afraid I can’t help. I’d suggest having your parents call and setting up a time for your pet.”
“Oh, Patina, you can leave off your arrogant routine. Cocklebur’s here at my invitation,” Tabby said cheerfully, popping her head out of the doorway. “Come on in, you can help me get set up for the next patient.”
Cocklebur’s face broke out in a grin at the sight of Tabby. “Cool!”
“Don’t let Patina intimidate you; she’s not as sweet and considerate as Sug was, but she’s really not so bad once you get to know her,” Tabby prattled on as she gave Cocklebur the task of rubbing down the fur-covered counter.
“Why doesn’t Sugarberry work here anymore?” Cocklebur asked curiously.
“Oh, she wanted more time to take care of Banderol. So she stays at home now and devotes more time to writing her books,” Tabby explained, rummaging through a cupboard. “Say, how are all your animals doing?”
“They’re good,” Cocklebur said. “That stray dog had her puppies over the weekend. I’ll have to start finding homes for them.”
“You can use the bulletin board in the waiting room to advertise,” Tabby suggested as Patina stepped in.
“Posey is here with her iguana,” she said stiffly.
“Oh, great! She can come right in! You can stay here and watch, Cocklebur.”
The delicate yellow pony came trotting in shortly after. “Hi, Tabby! I see you have a new assistant.”
“Yes, this is Cocklebur, pet doctor in training,” Tabby clarified. “Now, how is Herbert?”
“I haven’t seen any problems since his last check-up,” Posey said, letting Herbert out of his transport house.
Tabby checked the reptile’s heartbeat, temperature, and other vital functions under Cocklebur’s unwavering gaze as he took in all of this new information. “I see no problems,” Tabby said as her diagnosis, “except that his scales seem a bit dull in color. What foods have you been giving him?”
“I changed brands recently,” Posey admitted. “It was cheaper.”
Tabby nodded understandingly. “It probably doesn’t have all the nutrients he needs, though. The other brand might be more expensive but it would be healthier for him.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Posey said guiltily.
“No permanent damage has been done,” Tabby assured her, “as long as he eats correct nutrients again in the future.”
“Thanks,” said Posey, as Tabby led her to the door.
“There,” said Tabby, smiling at Cocklebur as she returned. “It’s really not so hard being a veterinarian, is it?”
“That was just a simple check-up, though,” Cocklebur commented. “What about giving shots, or performing surgeries? Those must be a lot more work.”
“Well, this was just your first day. If you want to come again tomorrow afternoon, I believe I have some rabies shots to give. And then–”
* * *
Cocklebur quickly fell into this new regimen of visiting the clinic afternoons after his chores were out of the way. By the end of that week, Tabby had even judged him to be competent enough to administer a shot on his own. Well, she had held the cat down and helped hold the syringe, but Cocklebur had still been able to inject the medicine.
Cocklebur usually stayed on at the clinic until right before his family’s suppertime, which was also closing time for the clinic, so he often walked part of the way home with Tabby, Thomas, and Baby Faline. Cocklebur practically started to seem like one of the family.
On Monday, however, Cocklebur was noticeably disappointed to be greeted only by Thomas, with his idol nowhere in sight. “Tabby had to take Faline to the doctor for a check-up,” Thomas explained patiently. “But if you’d like, you could watch m–”
“Nah, that’s okay,” Cocklebur interrupted, shaking his head. “I’ll just come back tomorrow. Thanks anyway.” Quickly, the colt was back out the door before Thomas could form a reply.
“Well, that certainly makes me feel useful,” he commented drily to Patina.
“He’s got it bad for your Tabby,” Patina observed wryly.
Thomas just grinned. “He’s a good kid. Tabby’s doing the right thing by nurturing his abilities.”
* * *
“Hi, Cocky!” Leafy said cheerfully as she found her friend coming out the front door of his house. “I’m glad I caught you. Do you want to–”
“Not this afternoon,” Cocklebur said, shaking his head. “I’ve gotta run.”
“Oh,” Leafy said, her expression downcast. “Whatcha doing?”
“Going to the clinic,” Cocklebur said succinctly, walking down the path.
“I figured,” Leafy sighed. “Hey... do you think I could come with you?”
“Nah,” Cocklebur said. “I don’t want to impose on Tabby.”
Leafy sighed again. “Yeah, I guess. Are we still going to–”
“Later,” Cocklebur cut her off. “I’m gonna be late! See ya.”
“Yeah. See ya,” Leafy said forlornly as she watched her friend disappear down the sidewalk.
* * *
That same afternoon, Noddins was out weeding her garden, though for the most part she was pulling up the flowers and leaving the weeds. Upon looking up, she spotted her friend Leafy coming despondently down the sidewalk. “Hey, Leafy! What’re you doing out?” Noddins got up eagerly, rubbing her dirt-stained hooves.
Leafy trotted over to the fence. “Oh, I just went to see Cocklebur, but he was too busy to play.”
Noddins nodded authoritatively. “He’s probably with Tabby. She says she’s been teaching him a lot about animals n’ stuff.”
“Yeah, that’s what he said,” Leafy agreed. “But he never has any time to play any more! We used to get together all the time. Now it’s boring. I miss him.”
Noddins was lost in thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No, no, no. This is never going to work out. Leafy, you’re a cow!”
Leafy looked at her friend strangely. “So?”
“Well, I don’t know if you could marry him or not,” Noddins said pensively. “After all–”
“I wasn’t talking about marrying him, silly!” Leafy scoffed. “I just want to play with him. We had plans to fix up his treehouse this weekend, but I bet he’s forgotten!”
“That’s too bad,” Noddins said sympathetically. “Wanna play My Little People with me?”
“Okay!”
* * *
“Hello, Baby Noddins.”
“Just Noddins, if you please. I’m almost thirteen, you know.”
“Oh!” Elaine looked surprised. “I didn’t think– I mean, certainly. I’m sorry, Noddins.”
“Sure,” Noddins said, seating herself. “Thirteen sounds pretty old, doesn’t it? I hope it doesn’t mean I have to get rid of my My Little People collection.”
“I’m sure that isn’t necessary,” Elaine assured her.
“Good,” Noddins said. “Where’s Alan?”
“He’s working late at the publishing house and we planned on meeting here for dinner,” Elaine explained.
“Then why isn’t he here?”
“Well, I did get here a bit early.”
“Then I can keep you company!” Noddins offered selflessly.
“I’m sure you can,” Elaine said under her breath. “Your mother won’t be missing you, will she?”
“Oh, no,” Noddins shook her head. “She says it’s a relief to have me out of her hair. Especially now, after supper, when she’s doing the dishes. She says I broke too many plates and stuff so I can’t help her in the kitchen anymore.” She giggled.
“When I was young, my mom and I did the dishes together every night,” Elaine sighed, beginning to reminisce. “That was so much fun... we’d talk about whatever came into mind.”
Never one to miss a good lead, Noddins leaned forward. “Ooh! What kind of stuff did you talk about?”
“Oh... school, and pets, and gardening, and boys, too...”
Noddins eyes lit up. “Ooh! What did you talk about boys?”
“Well... not much, actually,” Elaine admitted. “I never really had a boyfriend in my schooldays. I just had friends. Mom always asked if there was anyone I really liked, though.” She smiled whimsically at the memory.
“Oh.” Noddins’ face fell. This was not as juicy as she had hoped.
“Of course, there were those girlfriends of Thomas’,” Elaine continued on without thinking.
Noddins squealed. “Really??? Oh, Elaine, you have to tell me all about them!!!”
“Well, I don’t know–” Elaine paused, finally coming back to reality and realizing whom she was talking to.
“Please?” Noddins begged.
Elaine hesitated, but knew that once Noddins was on the scent of something there was nothing to throw her off. “Well,” she started out cautiously, “his first was when he was quite young, a freshman in highschool.”
“That sounds impressive, whatever it means. But what about the girl?”
“I didn’t really get to see her that much,” Elaine recalled. “Just a few times when she came home with Thomas after school. I don’t even remember her name, but I always admired her hairstyles when I did see her. I got the impression that she liked Thomas a lot more than he liked her.”
“Did he dump her, then?” Noddins guessed.
“Not exactly, but he kept trying to brush her off. Eventually she found someone new, and he never talked about her after that.”
Noddins kept nodding her head. “This is good stuff so far. But didn’t Thomas have any others?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Elaine went blissfully onwards, getting too caught up in her topic to think of the consequences. “The next year a foreign filly transferred to the school, and Thomas was quite infatuated with her. She was all he could talk about for awhile.” Elaine shook her head in fond remembrance. “It only lasted a couple of weeks, though. They went out on a few dates and then he reported that they broke up on mutual agreement, but judging from his sullen attitude for a time after that I think she dumped him.”
“How tragic!” Noddins said eagerly.
“After that he was very involved in his schoolwork, and if he had any time for girls I didn’t know about it,” Elaine continued. “He did meet someone in college, though, who I got to meet once. Her name was Trish, and she was a bit older than Thomas. She struck me as being very serious and refined, but I didn’t think they went well together. Though obviously that relationship didn’t last long, either.”
“And? Any more?” Noddins prodded.
Elaine shook her head. “The next mare he took an interest in was Tabby, and you know how that turned out.” She sighed happily. “Isn’t falling in love wonderful?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Noddins scowled.
“Don’t worry. Your dream stallion will come along,” Elaine said consolingly. “Just give it time.”
“He’d better. I don’t know what’s taking him so long.” Then Noddins’ face brightened. “But this was a great conversation, Elaine. Is that your husband that just came in? Well, I’ll leave now. Goodnight!”
“Goodnight,” Elaine said, and only then did she faint stirrings of unrest of the confidential material she had just revealed to the notorious Baby Noddins.
* * *
“Tabby,” Noddins asked abruptly one evening when visiting the mansion, “can a pony and a cow get married?”
“Why, have you found a cow with a last name?” Tabby said conversationally.
“Oh, no,” Noddins shook her head. “I mean Leafy. She’s Cocklebur’s friend, you know. I was wondering if they ever fell in love if they could get married?”
“Well, I haven’t heard of it happening,” Tabby said thoughtfully. “But I wouldn’t worry about it. Just because they’re friends doesn’t mean they’ll get married or even fall in love.”
“ ‘Kay,” Noddins said cheerfully. “I was playing with Leafy the other day, y’know. She was complaining Cocklebur’s never around anymore.”
“He does spend a lot of his free time at the clinic now,” Tabby said pensively. “I hope I’m not responsible for alienating his friends from him. Maybe I should talk to him.”
“We’re all teasing him for getting a crush on you,” Noddins giggled. “You think he does?”
“If he does, he’ll get over it soon enough,” Tabby predicted.
“Cool,” Noddins said. “Hey, I just thought of something! I ran into Elaine at the SSSS last night and got her to tell me all about Thomas’ old girlfriends. Wanna hear?”
“Oh,” Tabby’s eyes gleamed and she obligingly refilled Noddins’ glass of lemonade. “Do tell.”
“Well,” said Noddins authoritatively, taking a sip from her glass, “there was one year of school when this really drop-dead gorgeous girl with awesome hair tried desperately to get Thomas’ attention, but he ignored her because he had fallen quite in love with an exotic foreign filly who had just transferred to school. Actually,” the young unicorn was really getting into her tale now, “both of these fillies were twins, except that they didn’t know it, because they had been separated at birth. But anyway, the one Thomas was in love with didn’t care about him, even after he’d swore his undying devotion to her. The other twin couldn’t get Thomas to look her way even though she had fallen hopelessly in love with him. Isn’t it all just too tragic?” Noddins sighed wistfully. “Can I have more lemonade?”
“Too tragic for words,” Tabby agreed readily, lemonade pitcher in hoof. She would have fun grilling her husband later for how much truth was contained in Noddins’ rendition. “Whatever happened to fix this tangled affair?”
“Oh, the first filly found out that the other girl was really her twin sister, so rather than get between her sister and the guy she loved she quite selflessly found another boyfriend and forgot about Thomas,” Noddins explained. “Thomas couldn’t bring himself to forget the other girl, though, until one study hall when she quite ruthlessly told him off in the cafeteria over lunch, in front of the whole school practically! Thomas’ heart was broken for years after that. He was only able to recover and get back to his own self after he declared that he would seek revenge upon the filly that had wreaked havoc with his heart! So in college–“
”Baby. Noddins.” Thomas, who had happened to pass by the doorway at around the time of ‘I ran into Elaine and got her to tell me about Thomas’ old girlfriends’ and had stood transfixed, torn between amusement at Noddins’ twisted retelling and resentment at his sister, could finally stand these fictitious renderings of his past no more. He advanced closer to the lavender unicorn, carefully keeping his temper in check.
“Oh, hello, Thomas,” Noddins said cheerfully. “I was just telling Tabby stories about your old girlfriends. Would you like to stay and listen?”
“I think I’ve heard quite enough,” Thomas said grimly.
“Oh,” said Noddins, disappointed. “But I didn’t get to the part where–“
”Yes, yes, I’m sure it was very exciting, but I think you’ve tampered with my past enough for one night.” And wait until I get my hooves on Elaine. What was she thinking, telling Baby Noddins anything?!
Tabby stifled a laugh. “That was very enlightening, Noddins. Thank you for sharing,” she patted the younger pony on the head. “Funny I never thought to ask Elaine about it myself. Well, you can run along now. It is getting late.”
“Okay,” said Noddins, nonplused. “Goodnight. See ya later.” She grandly made her exit.
* * *
Nevertheless, Tabby did not forget the earlier part of her conversation with Noddins, so she brought the topic up to Cocklebur the next day. “I hope you don’t feel pressured into coming here all the time,” she said casually. “I’m sure you have things you want to do with your friends, too.”
“But I like being here with you!” Cocklebur blurted out.
“Still, you should hang out with your contemporaries some of the time,” Tabby said wisely.
“My what?”
“Er... your... own age-group.”
“Are you getting tired of having me around?” Cocklebur asked, looking downcast.
“Oh, no, not at all!” Tabby assured him quickly. “Your assistance has been invaluable. But you’re still young to have a full-time job like this, don’t you think?”
“It’s only afternoons–”
“Same principle,” Tabby cut him off. “Hey, don’t feel bad. I just don’t want you to forget about your own friends. Have you been playing with them much lately?”
“Well... no, I guess not,” Cocklebur admitted reluctantly.
“So you see? You’ve been working too hard lately; you’ve got to take advantage of your age and have fun when you have the chance!” Tabby said encouragingly.
“Can I not come back at all anymore?” Cocklebur asked cautiously, beginning to waver at the thought of his old buddies he hadn’t seen in what seemed like ages. And Baby Leafy.
“Once a week couldn’t hurt, if you still wanted to,” Tabby suggested. “I’m sure you need more time taking care of your own animals, too.”
“I guess you have a point,” Cocklebur said after a pause. “Okay... once a week.” He glanced at the clock on the wall. “I guess I should be getting home now. Thanks for everything you taught me, though.”
“Sure, no prob!” Tabby said, seeing him to the door. “Have a good weekend.”
“Thanks. And you, too,” Cocklebur grinned. “Guess I’ll see you next Friday.”
“Sure thing.”
* * *
“Baby Leafy,” Mommy Leafy called up the stairs, “one of your friends is here!”
Dropping the book she had been reading on her bed, Leafy entertained the faint hope that perhaps it was Cocklebur. She quickly brushed that unlikely notion aside, however, as she trotted down the stairs. Nonetheless, her face lit up with pleasure when she saw who had stopped by.
“Cocky!” she exclaimed gleefully. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, um, hi, Leafy,” Cocklebur said a bit nervously. “I wondered if you still wanted to help me fix up the treehouse.”
“I thought you had forgotten!” Leafy beamed. “Sure, that would be fun.”
“And,” Cocklebur brought out something hidden behind his back, “I know I’ve been really busy lately, so I brought you these to make up for it.”
Leafy accepted the somewhat-wilted alfalfa blooms with a grin. “Thanks, Cocky! Can we work on the treehouse now?”
“If you want,” Cocklebur said. “I have all the materials ready.”
“Then let’s go!” Leafy took charge, heading for the door. As they walked down the street to Cocklebur’s backyard, the two caught up on all their experiences of the last couple of weeks and found there was an inexhaustible amount of topics on which to converse.
I guess Tabby was right, Cocklebur thought cheerfully to himself as he handed a hammer and nails to his friend. Leafy’s a pretty cool po...cow.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Beach Weekend
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)

Clever Clover and Belle Star found themselves working on an archaeological dig at an ancient cliff dwelling in the Crystal Desert south of Dream Valley. Because of the isolation of the site, the crew was camping out at the base of the cliff. Every day they would climb the narrow ledges cris-crossing the cliff face to reach the site. Some parts of the site were so hard to reach, they had to build rope bridges to provide safe access. But it was all worth it. This was the type of site that archaeologists dreamed of. Its isolation and arid climate had resulted in excellent preservation, and the artifacts that they were finding were the most magnificent most of the crew-ponies had ever seen.
But after over two months without a break, even the most wonderful site begins to lose its appeal. That is why Kiva, the native pony head of the excavation, decided to give the crew an extended weekend so they could get away from the camp and enjoy the benefits of civilization again. It was their last night at the digsite and then they would be away for four days, though one of those days would be spent traveling to and from Port Cactus, the nearest town to the camp. Port Cactus was a resort town on the coast and most of the crew looked forward to the change of scenery.
“I can’t wait to get to PC,” said Tumbleweed, one of the younger crew-ponies. “I’m gonna party all night and sleep all day!”
Coyote, who lived in Port Cactus, laughed. “You too? Sounds like the whole crew is gonna be there! The only ones we haven’t heard from are Kiva, Clever Clover, and Belle Star.”
Kiva shook his head. “You can count me out. I’ve got to spend some time with my wife.”
“Well, why don’t you bring her along! The more the merrier!” Coyote howled.
“Maybe next time. How about you two?” Kiva looked at Clever Clover and Belle Star, who always sat next to each other at the campfire.
Clever Clover shrugged. “I don’t really have any plans. But I’ve heard PC has a nice little museum. I’d like to check that out while I have the chance. Other than that, I guess I’ll just play it by ear, maybe check out the beach.”
“And you, Belle Star?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Do you think there would be a karaoke place in PC?”
Coyote shook his head. “I’m pretty sure they don’t.”
“Well, in that case, I’ll probably just hang out at the beach!”
“After two months of nothing by sand you want to hang out at the beach?”
“There is a difference,” Clever Clover said, “between sand and sand with water.”
* * *
The next morning the crew filed onto Kiva’s rusty old bus. The engine roared and the tires kicked up a cloud of dust as they set off for Port Cactus. There was no air conditioning on the bus. The hot sun and dry dust made the trip less than pleasant. But when they reached the paved road and caught a hint of sea breeze, their spirits rose. By noon they had reached the outskirts of Port Cactus. Kiva parked the bus at a small cantina on the edge of town. “Well, let’s get some lunch. Then I’ll drop you all at the motel.”
After their lunch, the best lunch they’d had in the last two months, Kiva took them to the motel where he had made reservations for the crew, except for himself and Coyote who were able to get home. Once they were checked in, most of the crew made for one of the many clubs in town. Belle Star went right to bed while Clever Clover took a walk.
It didn’t take the purple prince long to find the museum, and almost as long to get through it. It was a single room with displays of artifacts around the walls and a diorama of a native pony village in the center. It was all nicely done, what little there was of it. Clever Clover bought a book at the museum gift shop (a bookshelf next to the exit) and headed back to the motel. Even though he had taken his time, it was not nearly time for supper when he reached the motel. He could check out the clubs to kill some time and see what the rest of the crew was up to, but he didn’t feel up to that. He laid down on his bed and yawned. “Maybe I should take a clue from Belle Star and get some sleep.” Just then his phone rang. “Allo,” he answered.
“Hi, Clever Clover, it’s Belle Star.”
“Hey, what’s up?”
“I just woke up and thought I’d go check out some of the shops. Would you like to come along? It’s always more fun shopping with a friend.”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll meet you in the lobby in a couple of minutes.”
“Okay, see you there.”
Shortly the two ponies were making their way down the main business street of Port Cactus. Most of the shops were geared toward tourists with a wide selection of Port Cactus postcards, t-shirts, hats, and novelties. Occasionally there would be a shop that had authentic local arts and crafts, but they were mostly too expensive for a couple of archaeologists. Before they knew it, both the ponies’ stomachs were grumbling.
Clever Clover checked his watch. “It’s almost 6:00 already. We should probably find someplace to eat.”
“Yeah. But I was really hoping to find something nice at one of the shops. It’s so disappointing to go shopping and not buy anything. Why don’t we buy some hats, then get supper?”
“All right. I like hats.”
They went into the first touristy shop they came to and found a rack of hats. Belle Star picked out a hot pink baseball cap embroidered with a beach scene and the words “Port Cactus”. “Here’s a good one for you, Clever Clover. What do you think?”
“I think I like this one better.” The purple pony held up a beige cap with “Port Cactus” in black and gold letters.
But another hat had caught Belle Star’s eye, a wide brimmed straw hat with two bright pink flowers on the band. She put on the hat and struck a pose. “What do you think, Clever Clover?”
“I like it. It’s you.”
The two ponies paid for their new hats and set out to find a restaurant. It didn’t take long to find a little cafe just off the main street. After supper they returned to the motel. “Well, Belle Star, I’m just about ready to call it a night.”
“Yeah. The drive this morning took a lot out of me. Clever Clover, what do you say we go to the beach together tomorrow?”
“Sounds good. Well, see you tomorrow.”
* * *
The next morning Clever Clover slept in, feeling confident that Belle Star would do the same. It was mid morning by the time he managed to crawl out of bed. He went to the motel lobby to get some breakfast. The motel provided a spread of tropical fruits and fresh donuts every morning. After eating a mango, the purple pony decided to call on Belle Star. When he got to her room, he found the door was ajar. He rapped lightly on the door. “Allo, Belle Star, are you there?”
“Oh, good morning, Clever Clover!” she replied.
A gentle breeze blew the door halfway open. Clever Clover poked his head into Belle Star’s room. “Uh, can I come in?”
Belle Star shrieked in terror. “AH! I’m not dressed!” The tan pony darted behind a dressing screen.
Clever Clover blushed as he withdrew from the room. “Sorry. Hey, wait a minute. Since when do ponies wear clothes?”
“Okay, you can come in now.”
Clever Clover entered the room. Belle Star stepped out from behind the screen wearing a green and yellow bikini and her new straw hat. “So, what do you think?”
“It’s nice. So it looks like you’re ready for a day at the beach.”
“Uh huh.”
“Well then, let’s go.”
* * *
The beach was not overly crowded, but there were a number of tourists about, mostly baby ponies and their parents. The baby ponies made quite a commotion, splashing and squealing with glee in the shallow water. The two archaeologists strolled down the beach, hoping to find a spot that was less noisy. The further they got from the motels, the quieter the beach got. It was getting close to noon by the time they found a spot they liked. There were a number of palm trees to provide shade, and most of the ponies appeared to be locals and were less exuberant than the tourists.
“Let’s take a quick dip, then get something to eat,” suggested Clever Clover.
Belle Star shook her head enthusiastically. “Yeah!”
Despite her clumsy tendencies, Belle Star was a rather graceful swimmer. Clever Clover had never quite gotten the graceful aspect, but he had been swimming since he was young. He enjoyed swimming, but this was the first time he had swam in the ocean. He took a deep breath and dove underwater. A school of brightly colored fish flitted along just above the white sand bottom. It seemed almost surreal. He was so transfixed by the beauty of the underwater world that he forgot to watch where he was going. Then he ran into something. The unexpected impact, light as it was, caused him to open his mouth, losing his air. He shot to the surface, gasping for air. Once he regained his breath, he realized what he had bumped into, Belle Star’s backside! His friend stood looking over her shoulder with a puzzled expression on her face.
“Uh, sorry ‘bout that. I kinda got distracted by some fish.”
Belle Star gigged and splashed some water in Clever Clover’s face. “That’s okay, no harm done. I’m hungry, lets get something to eat!”
“Right. Food sounds good right now.”
There were all sorts of food vendors just off the beach. Just about every type of food imaginable was available on the beach-side street. Clever Clover and Belle Star decided on corn-dogs, the local variety with jalapenos in the batter. As they sat and ate their corn-dogs, Belle Star noticed a commotion up the beach a way.
“Hm, I wonder what’s going on up there?”
Clever Clover looked up the beach, but couldn’t make out what was going on. As a couple of ponies ran past toward the commotion, Clever Clover flagged one of them down. “What’s up?” the purple pony asked the stranger.
“Dude! The local radio station is sponsoring a beach karaoke contest! It’s been going on all week! They’re just about to start that last qualifier before the big final round tomorrow!” And with that he rushed off.
Belle Star’s eyes sparkled with delight. “Oh, I just love karaoke! Come on, let’s go sing something together!” She grabbed Clever Clover and began to drag him across the beach.
“I don’t know, Belle Star,” he said between bites of his corn-dog. “I’m not that much of a singer.”
“What about those songs you sing at work?”
“That’s different. I just make them up as I go; it’s totally different from karaoke!”
“Oh, it’ll be fun, please!” By this time they were nearly at the registration table.
“Maybe if I had some time to prepare…”
But they had reached the table. “We’d like to enter the karaoke contest!” she announced.
“Cool!” the official replied. “You, like, singin’ as a duet or, like, separately?”
Clever Clover tried to get a word in edgewise. “Actually she’s the only one…”
“We’re going to sing a duet!”
“All right! Here’s, like, a list of duets we’ve got. Like, fill it out and give it to the director dude over there.”
Belle Star wrote both their names on the entry form and began to read the list of song titles while still clinging to Clever Clover. “Belle Star! Don’t I get any say in this?”
“Oh, that’s my favorite song! We’ll have to sing that one!”
“What, let me see that. Hey! That’s a love song!”
“Uh huh, it’s so romantic. I cry every time I hear it!” She rushed over to the director and handed him the entry form.
“Great, another entry! Let’s see now, that’s a great song. Can’t wait to hear it. Here are the lyric sheets. You’ll be number 17 in the lineup, you should report backstage to get ready when number 16 is announced on stage. Good luck!”
The voice of the official from the registration table blared over a loudspeaker. “Okay! It’s, like, nearing the deadline for registration! You’ve got, like, five minutes to get your registration to the director dude! And, like, the show starts in ten!”
Clever Clover and Bells Star sat on the bleachers that had been set up for the event. Belle Star was humming the tune to the song as she read the lyric sheet. Clever Clover’s face twisted into a painful grimace as he read his lines. “You really expect me to sing this sappy stuff?”
“Just try it, please! I’m sure you’ll like it if you just give it a chance.”
“All right. I’ll do my best.” The purple pony resumed his studies. He was somewhat familiar with the song. Belle Star had a tape that she liked to listen to on Coyote’s boombox at the dig; and whenever this song came on, she started to dance and sing into her trowel like it was a microphone. He had never paid too much attention to the lyrics before, though. Before he knew it, they were announcing the first contestant.
Clever Clover was too stressed out over the impending duet to really pay attention to the competition. He vaguely noticed that the crowd’s reaction was typically mixed. Between the music, the cheers, and the jeers, he was having problems focusing on the words he was trying to study. Eventually, he decided to give up on it; he knew the lines as well as he was going to in the time he had. Just as he lifted his eyes from the paper, the DJ on stage announced contestant number 15. It was almost time for him and Belle Star to get ready for their performance. He suddenly got all hot and sweaty as the 15th song went by. It was the first song he had really listened to and he was not too impressed. When the DJ announced the 16th contestant, Belle Star and Clever Clover got up from their seats and made their way backstage. From what he could hear, Clever Clover thought number 16 had some real talent.
They were greeted backstage by the director. “Hey, there you are! Come over here, and put on these headphones. You’ve got one chance to rehearse your song before you go on. Okay, get to it!” Clever Clover and Belle Star put on the headphones and watched the TV screen that showed the lyrics in time with the music playing on the phones. Belle Star had the first line, fortunately, and she executed it perfectly. Clever Clover choked a little and had to struggle to keep up with the music. Belle Star’s second line came and went. Clever Clover didn’t choke this time; he was able to keep up with the music, but he was sure he was singing way off key. By the time they finished their first run-through, Clever Clover was starting to get the hang of it, but he still didn’t feel ready to go before the crowd. But there was no time to worry; the DJ was announcing contestant number 17.
The pair of archaeologists walked onto the stage. Clever Clover was glad he had his sunglasses on; if the audience couldn’t see his eyes, they might not know how nervous he was. The music started playing and the crowd started swaying to the beat. Clever Clover was glad that there was a long lead-in to the song; it gave him a little more time to prepare. To his surprise, when Belle Star started to sing her lines, she reached up, took off his glasses, and gazed into his eyes. At first he felt hot with nerves but when it was his turn to sing, her deep blue eyes had mesmerized him. He sang his lines as if they were a part of him. Before he knew it, the song was over and the audience roared with applause.
“Wasn’t that great!” the DJ declared. “You two must really be in love to give it soooo much feeling!”
Belle Star giggled.
As Clever Clover’s senses returned to him, he shook his head. “We’re not in love! We’re just…friends.”
“Yeah, right!” the DJ laughed. “All right! Now, why don’t we let the lovebirds have a little time to themselves while we bring out our 18th contestant!”
Belle Star and Clever Clover hurried from the stage as the next contestant took the stage. “See, wasn’t that fun?” Belle Star asked.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Maybe with a smaller crowd it might be fun.”
“Oh, you liked it! Don’t deny it.”
“Yeah, maybe I liked it a little. But all the same, I’m glad it’s over.”
“Uh huh.”
Backstage, the director was waiting for them. “Hey, you two! I told you that was a great song, didn’t I! And you two did a great job with it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see you back here tomorrow night!”
“Hu? What happens tomorrow night?”
“Duh! It’s the finals! Every day’s winner from the past week will compete for the grand prize! A home entertainment system with a value of more than 5,000 jangles!”
“Oh wow! We get to sing again!”
“Don’t get your hopes up, Belle Star. We haven’t won yet.”
The director shook his head. “Don’t be such a downer. I’ve directed a lot of these contests and I can tell you, you’ve got an easy seventy-five percent chance of winning.”
“That’s nice of you to say, but shouldn’t you be warming up the next contestant?”
“No. Eighteen’s all we got today. Why don’t you two just hang around back here till it’s over? It’ll just be a couple of minutes before we get the judges’ decision. Then, if you win, you’ll need to pick your song for tomorrow. It’ll have to be something different from what you sang today.”
Belle Star hung her head. “Oh, but that was my favorite song in the whole world!”
“Don’t worry, sweetie, there’s lots of other songs out their. I’m sure you’ll find something you like. Or maybe you can let your guy pick the song this time.”
“What do you say, Clever Clover? Would you like to pick our next song?”
“Yeah, I guess. If we win, I’ll have a look at the songs.”
The official from the registration table came up and handed the director a slip of paper. “Oh, good. The results are in!”
Clever Clover was surprised. “What? This guy isn’t even finished yet!”
“Listen to him for a minute, if you can stand it. It doesn’t take long to realize, he ain’t all that good.”
Clever Clover cocked his head and listened. “I see what you’re saying. Why’d the worst contestant have to choose ‘Bye Bye Mrs. American Pie’?”
“That’s usually the way it is.” The director looked at the results. “Well, it looks like I will see you two tomorrow. Congratulations! Here’s the songs you have to choose from for the finals.”
Belle Star started to jump up and down. “Oh goody! We won! We won!”
Clever Clover looked over the list of songs. “Man, I’ve never even heard most of these. And I’ve only seen one so far that I’d even consider singing.”
When the last singer finished and was booed off the stage, the DJ tried to calm the crowd. “Come on, guys! I know that was awful, but just think ahead to tomorrow! The six best singers or duets from the past week will be performing on this stage one more time!” The crowd cheered. “But you probably want to know who is going to be the sixth contestant tomorrow! So without further ado, today’s winner…the Lovebirds, Belle Star and Clever Clover!”
* * *
Clever Clover didn’t have much of an appetite after the contest, but Belle Star insisted they go out for a celebratory supper in the nicest restaurant in town. Not having been able to spend any money in the last two months, they had enough money for a nice meal for a change. Unfortunately, that proved easier said than done. In a resort town, there were a lot of restaurants to choose from and everyone they asked for advice had a different opinion on which was the best. As the search wore on, Clever Clover’s appetite came back. “Hey, Belle Star, let’s just head back to the motel and stop at the first restaurant we come to.”
“Yeah, I am getting pretty hungry.”
So they started back toward the motel. The first restaurant they came to was a little hole-in-the-wall on a narrow side road. The dining room was small and dark, but the food actually the best they had had in Port Cactus. While they ate, they discussed what song they would sing the next day. Once they had come to a decision, they returned to the motel for the night.
The next morning, Clever Clover woke up unusually early. He took a walk on the beach, going north this time, away from the karaoke stage. By mid morning, he realized that he had lost track of time. Fortunately, the final karaoke contest wasn’t until later in the evening. He returned to the motel, arriving just before noon. On the way back to his room he knocked on Belle Star’s door, which was closed this time. At first there was no answer, but as he turned to leave there came a groggy “Who’s there?”
“It’s Clever Clover. Aren’t you up yet?”
A few moments later the door opened. Belle Star yawned and rubbed her eyes. “Good morning, Clever Clover. Do you want to get some breakfast?”
“Actually, I was thinking about lunch. It’s almost noon.”
“That late? Where do you want to go for lunch?”
“Actually, I was thinking we could order a pizza and practice our song.”
“Really! I knew you’d like karaoke if you gave it a chance!”
“Really, it’s just my competitive nature. So what do you want on the pizza?”
* * *
After lunch they went to the beach. They had all afternoon to enjoy themselves before they had to compete in the karaoke finals. On the way to the beach they stopped to buy snorkeling gear so they could explore the reefs that lay off-shore. The afternoon went quite quickly. It was difficult for them to leave the beauty of the reef behind, but hunger got the better of them. By the time they finished a quick meal from one of the beach-side vendors, it was almost time for the karaoke finals so they made their way down the beach to the stage.
There was already a large crowd assembled and more ponies were coming every minute. Clever Clover and Belle Star joined the other finalists, mostly ponies and one Bushwoolie, backstage where the director, with a bucket in hoof, was waiting to address the contestants.
“All right! You’re all here now. For the final round, your order will be determined by drawing numbers. For you duets, only one member needs to draw, so please figure out which it’s going to be. We don’t want to run out of numbers like we did last year.”
“Clever Clover, do you want to draw or can I?”
“Go right ahead, Belle Star.”
The tan pony stepped forward and drew a slip of paper from the bucket.
“So, what number did we get?”
Belle Star unfolded the paper, squinted at it, then turned it over. “We’re number two.”
Once all the contestants had drawn, the director tossed the bucket away. “All right, contestants, would number one report to the rehearsal area while our DJ warms up the crowd.”
The DJ played a recording of the first contestant’s qualifying performance along with a laser light show. When the show was over, the contestant took the stage and Clever Clover and Belle Star had a chance to rehearse their song. After the first contestant was finished, the crowd was treated to a replay of Clever Clover and Belle Star’s performance from the day before, then the two ponies took to the stage. Clever Clover was less nervous than last time and Belle Star was a bundle of energy, hopping up and down in anticipation. They sang their song and the crowd cheered. They waited backstage as the remainder of the contestants performed.
After the last contestant had finished, all the contestants were called out onto the stage. “Alright everybody!” the DJ bellowed. “It is the moment you’ve been waiting for all week! In a few moments we will know who is this year’s Karaoke Champion!” The crowd roared. “But first let’s hear it for our third place winner, Billy Bob Bushwoolie! His prize, 100 jangles worth of gift certificates from local merchants!”
The Bushwoolie bounded forward to accept his prize. “Me won! Me won! Yippie!”
“Isn’t he great, folks! Let’s hear it for Billy Bob Bushwoolie!” Once the crowd calmed down, the DJ continued. “Now, for number two, appropriately enough one of our two duets! Will our second prize winners please step forward, the Lovebirds! Belle Star and Clever Clover!”
Belle Star shrieked with joy. Clever Clover sighed with relief. “Aren’t they a cute couple?!” the DJ continued. “We’ve got a special prize just in case a duet won, a matching set of state of the art MP3 players complete with stereo headphones and pre-loaded with a 100 song music library!”
Clever Clover looked confused as the DJ presented him with the electronic device. “What the heck is a MP3?”
“You’re joking, right?” the DJ asked, covering his mic. Clever Clover shook his head. The DJ sighed. “I’ll explain it to you after the show.”
“All right! That’s two prizes down, one to go! Who will take the Grand Prize? Let’s hear it for Beach Bunny!”
The seafoam green pony with a surfboard symbol hopped forward. “Oh yeah! I won! All right!”
“Great work, Bunny! You won the Grand Prize, a home entertainment system worth more than 5,000 jangles!”
After the prizes were awarded, there was a beach party hosted by the radio station. Clever Clover and Belle Star didn’t stay too late. They had a bite to eat and a quick class in MP3s before returning to the motel. Tomorrow afternoon they would be bussed back into the isolation of the Crystal Desert and they didn’t want to sleep through the entire morning.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Affairs of the Heart
by Sugarberry (Sugrbery@aol.com)

Saying goodnight to her date, Chocolate Chip closed the apartment door and slumped on the couch. Admittedly, she had enjoyed her evening out. Xavier was a pleasant companion who could brighten an otherwise dreary work day with his lighthearted humor and ready wit.
Chocolate Chip leaned her head back against the cushions, smiling as she thought back to how the two of them had become friends simply because their schedules had put them on the same path every morning and most evenings. After discovering that they lived at the same apartment complex and worked less than a block away from one another, it had become a regular routine for them to walk to their respective offices together in the morning and, when agendas allowed it, to return home in one another’s company after work as well.
It was very agreeable to have someone she could call a friend, Chocolate Chip realized. New Pony was a fast-paced, exciting city, but she missed companionship. She grimaced as she remembered her last months in Dream Valley when she had been too busy to spend time with her dear friends; and now, when she would have loved to share her experiences with someone, she had no one with whom to talk.
It was true that her good friend, Prime, lived in the city and had provided introductions to places and ponies that expanded her horizons; but Prime was busy with his own responsibilities and was seldom available for a companionable visit to hash over the events that impacted Chocolate Chip.
Her supervisor at work, Fabia, was all business; and her associate on current projects, Tarn, was amiable enough but with a reserve that allowed for no true sharing of confidences. Xavier, on the other hoof, had come into her life and made her transition to her new home much more pleasurable.
Xavier, too, had come to the city from a small town, although he had been living in New Pony now for several years. His advice and guidance on what places to avoid and where the best shops and eating places were to be found had spared the mare some unpleasant and costly encounters. And all of this wisdom wrapped in an attractive package with a warm and witty personality was a veritable treasure to a lonely mare in the big city. She was very comfortable with the direction her life was taking.
Yet, Chocolate Chip admitted to herself, a recent occurrence had pointed out to her quite clearly that the past still held her in its grip.
* * *
It had been a complete surprise to find that Wigwam was with Vanguard, Sugarberry, and Banderol when they stopped in New Pony on their way home from Vulcanopolis. Chocolate Chip had promised to take her Dream Valley friends out to dinner when she had learned they would be passing through New Pony at the end of their Vulcanopolis vacation, but she had no inkling that Wigwam had joined their entourage.
The chocolate brown mare vividly remembered the moment she had seen Wigwam in her friends’ company when they had walked into the predesignated restaurant where she awaited them. It was as if her life had suddenly regained something special that had been missing. Wigwam had merely caught her eye and grinned, and she had been uplifted and revitalized, as if a healing tonic had been applied to an open wound that she had not known existed. It had been difficult not to throw herself into his forelegs.
As refreshing as it was, their time together had been all too brief as travel connections to Dream Valley had to be met. Conversation over dinner had centered around the unbelievable story of Banderol and Calla’s abduction and the subsequent rescue. When that tale had been thoroughly discussed, the interest had turned to Chocolate Chip’s own adventures in her new life in the city, Xavier being the one fact that she omitted to share– she did not want to explain this new relationship or face recrimination.
Only afterwards did Chocolate Chip realize that Wigwam had seemed preoccupied... almost reserved and out of her reach. He had been polite and considerate, but she had not seemed to hold his attention as in the past.
In a perverse way, Chocolate Chip was disappointed that he no longer hassled her about her feelings for him. She had been left with a deep sense of loss and found herself mentally berating the impertinent Bittersweet who was obviously scheming her way into Wigwam’s life and heart. The pretty mocha unicorn had inveigled herself into a prominent position in Wigwam’s life, if the number of times her name had come up in the stallion’s conversation was any indication. Chocolate Chip would not have him, but she still felt a proprietorial hold on him that allowed no interference. It rankled that his affection could so easily be transferred to another.
Chocolate Chip would have been unsettled to hear the discussion which took place after her Dream Valley friends left her company.
* * *
“You were baiting the poor girl!” Sugarberry chided Wigwam.
“Excuse me?” Wigwam negligently drawled.
“You know what I mean,” Sugarberry snapped. “Your saccharine manner devoid of any real sentiment... as if you were no more than an acquaintance to Chocolate Chip.”
Wigwam gave it some thought. “As I recall, I behaved very properly for a spurned lover,” he finally defended. “Besides, I was only putting Tabby’s advice to work. Let’s see... how did that go? Give Chocolate Chip plenty of space to follow her dream without making her feel guilty, I believe was the gist of it.”
Sugarberry glared at the stallion. “From my point of view, I’m sure you made her feel very guilty indeed, as if you had no interest in her at all anymore.”
“I’ve told her often enough in the past, Sugarberry. She is not unaware of my feelings.”
“But she’ll question them now– and don’t pretend that wasn’t your goal. The way you portrayed Bittersweet as your irreplaceable helpmate must certainly have rattled her!”
Wigwam looked to Vanguard for help. “I’m in a tough spot here, Van. Chocolate Chip has repeatedly rejected me, and Tabby has advised that I respect her wishes. Now your beautiful wife tells me I’ve erred in accepting my nebulous fate. What am I to do?”
Vanguard took the coward’s way out. “Don’t expect any advice from me. The only mare I’ve ever loved accepted my proposal forthwith. Therefore, I have no words of wisdom to give you, as I have no experience as a spurned lover.”
Wigwam snorted. “The only reason Sugarberry said yes to your proposal is that you delayed asking for so long that when you finally did pop the question, she took pity on your lack of confidence. But that’s beside the point,” Wigwam winked at Sugarberry. “What matters now is that Chocolate Chip realizes that I accept our separate lives. She’s free of any encumbrances I may have shackled her with. And I’m free to do as I please as well.”
“And what do you do if Bittersweet misreads your attention to her?” Sugarberry wanted to know.
“Trust me, Sugarberry. I can handle Bittersweet.”
* * *
“Wigwam!” Bittersweet flung her forelegs around the stallion the minute she saw him, which was about five minutes after the travelers had arrived back in Dream Valley. “I’m so glad you’re back!”
Sugarberry rolled her eyes.
“I’m glad to be back, with a welcome like that,” Wigwam chuckled, returning the mare’s hug before asking, “Have there been problems with the Native Dreams’ construction?”
“Oh, Wigwam, you wouldn’t believe what the workers have tried to get away with since you’ve been gone! I’ve had to keep a constant eye on things, and now Gambrel tells me that he’ll have to set back his part in the finish work because of a complication on another project. What are we going to do?” The mare nearly wailed.
Wigwam smiled over Bittersweet’s head at Sugarberry and Vanguard. “It’s nice to be needed.”
Sugarberry nearly growled at his insouciant reference to Chocolate Chip’s carefully cultivated reserve in his presence as compared to Bittersweet’s carefree abandon. “You’d better handle things, then,” she griped. Then, as Banderol wriggled in her forelegs, she softened. “Oh, Wigwam, I should be thanking you yet again for rushing off to help us regain Banderol!” She gave the stallion a hug that rivaled Bittersweet’s. “You’re the greatest!”
“At the risk of sounding redundant, she’s right,” Vanguard added, rescuing Banderol from the embrace that threatened to smother the foal. “Thanks, buddy.”
“What’s this all about?” demanded Bittersweet, suddenly forgetting her problems with Native Dreams. “Why did you rush off the way you did, Wigwam?”
Throwing a foreleg around each of the mares, Wigwam directed them down the street. “Well, Bittersweet, it was like this...”
Vanguard looked at Banderol and shrugged before following.
* * *
As the days settled back into a routine, Wigwam became aware that Bittersweet had kept a close eye on the construction ponies– to the point that all of the workers now cringed whenever the mocha unicorn appeared on the site; and, Finial, the contractor, tried to become invisible. It would take days– maybe even weeks– to smooth their ruffled feathers, but it would take isolating Bittersweet from the construction site, at least for a few days, to accomplish it. Wigwam aimed at her heart.
“I haven’t seen Teepee since I got back; I presume he’s buried in work out at the Native Pony excavations?” he angled.
Bittersweet snorted. “He could be in Timbuktu for all I know. And what’s more, I don’t even care! I’ve had more important things to do than worry about your brother.”
“Hmm,” Wigwam reflected. “Maybe I should walk out there this afternoon. Who knows? He could have fallen into a ravine or got caught in a landslide or...”
“Wigwam! You don’t really think that’s what happened, do you?” The mare looked aghast. “Maybe we should go out there right now!”
“What about the review of the blueprints you wanted...”
“Wigwam! This is your brother we’re talking about! Certainly he’s more important than any blueprints!”
Seeming to ponder that assertion, Wigwam finally concurred. “You’re right. Let’s pack a lunch and a first aid kit and head out.”
* * *
The weather was warm and the mosquitoes were nasty, but Wigwam and Bittersweet made good time in getting to the hilly encampment where Teepee spent most of his time since coming to Dream Valley and taking on the job of Operations Manager for the reclaiming and study of the Native Pony village that had once nestled in the valley beyond the earlier discovered cave site. The closer they got, the more nervous Bittersweet became as she allowed her imagination to construct all sorts of scenarios that centered around the broken and bruised body of Teepee.
She was nearly undone, however, when she and Wigwam reached the lush valley, looking down from the hillside, their presence undetected by the ponies who were working that day. Clever Clover was there, as were Digger and Ages. What held Bittersweet’s attention was a grouping to the side where she could make out the blue stallion who had worried her to distraction for the past hour.
He was definitely not in any state of trouble or harm; on the contrary, he was obviously quite content and comfortable sharing a mid-morning break with Buttercrunch and another mare whom Bittersweet had not seen for several years– Lillooet, a native pony she had met in college and not spared a thought of since the older mare had graduated and moved on.
“What’s she doing here?” Bittersweet spat, tossing her long tangerine mane over her shoulder and taking a stance that indicated extreme displeasure.
“Who is she?” Wigwam asked, foreseeing more problems in the already rocky history of his brother and Bittersweet.
“She,” Bittersweet hissed, “is a...” She stopped guiltily, then continued. “I don’t like her.”
“Why not?” queried Wigwam as he studied the soft pink mare, a hint of her golden curls peaking from under a wide-brimmed hat. The trill of her laughter wafted across the space between them as she responded to something Teepee had said.
Bittersweet cast a peevish look in Wigwam’s direction. “She’s... she’s... too blasted perfect!”
“And that’s why you don’t like her?”
“She always got the highest grades, she won the most prestigious awards, she instigated all the charity projects, she always has a smile, and she never has a hair out of place... and she’s so pretty.” Bittersweet recited the litany with venom in her voice.
“Well, it’s understandable that you’d dislike her then,” Wigwam imparted with a grin. “Why don’t you introduce us?”
“Harumph!” was all Bittersweet could come up with as the two ponies crossed the distance to where Teepee, Buttercrunch, and Lillooet sat.
Teepee got to his hooves as soon as he caught sight of the new arrivals. “So you’re back in town,” he directed at his brother with barely a glance at Bittersweet. “Was your trip for business or pleasure?”
“A little of both,” Wigwam admitted before acknowledging Buttercrunch and settling his gaze on Lillooet.
“You two don’t know one another?” queried Buttercrunch.
“We’ve never had the pleasure of an introduction,” drawled Wigwam.
Buttercrunch took care of that oversight. “Lillooet, this is Wigwam, Teepee’s brother and owner of the casino in town. Wigwam, Lillooet is doing research for a magazine article on the Native Pony culture and is here to see first-hoof what this site has to offer.”
Hearing the name of the pony for the first time, Wigwam was enlightened. “Lillooet, what a pleasure to meet you; I just finished reading your article in Chronicles on the post-Atlantean culture; your theory on the migration of ponies was quite fascinating.”
“I’m pleased you found it so,” Lillooet smiled. Her gaze shifted to Bittersweet. “And Bittersweet... it’s been awhile.”
The smile on Lillooet’s face never faltered, but a distinct cooling definitely took place as she and Bittersweet met eye to eye. As much as Bittersweet found Lillooet’s personality too sweet and cloying and perfect, so did Lillooet find Bittersweet’s spontaneous, devil-may-care attitude to be highly enviable. The mocha unicorn had befriended every pony with whom she came in contact without even trying, unlike Lillooet’s well-choreographed finesse at ingratiating other ponies to her. Neither would admit their respect for the other’s attributes, however.
“You’ve been making a name for yourself,” Bittersweet bit out, wishing she would have chosen a more becoming hat for herself to wear rather than the faded and well-worn visor she had clamped over her curls. The visor suited work at the dig site, but it did nothing to compete with the tulle-trimmed confection that rested on Lillooet’s well-shaped head.
A bit of cattiness crept into the mare’s voice as she responded to Bittersweet’s veiled compliment, belying her persona of perfection. “And your name, Bittersweet; have you been able to buff off the tarnish?”
“I may have gotten myself into some scrapes, Lil, but I learned from each experience. Life lived has substance.”
To forestall the extension of claws, Wigwam suggested, “Lillooet, I’d be delighted to hear your impressions of the paintings in the cave.” He nodded toward the gaping entrance in the side of the hill.
Granting the stallion a beatific smile as if she and Bittersweet had not just engaged in a subtle duel of words, Lillooet purred, “Maybe you’d like to view them with me while we discuss their place in history.”
Wigwam offered the mare a foreleg, and together the two ponies moved off to continue their conversation. Bittersweet glared after them, her anger apparent.
Watching her, Teepee could only surmise that jealousy was the root of the unicorn’s problem, imagining her unwilling to share Wigwam even for a moment... and with such a well-endowed mare. All well and good, the stallion decided. He had suffered more than his share from the green-eyed monster; let Bittersweet suffer a bit, too. It would be good for her.
Then why, he questioned himself, do I want to take her in my forelegs and kiss away that pain?
The thought shook him. Bittersweet was romantically interested in his brother and would be scandalized to find that he– Teepee– considered her to be the answer to all his own private dreams, the perfect mate that he had been hoping to find. The stallion shook his head. Life was not fair. It was with a scowl that he barked, “Buttercrunch, you and I better get back to work.” If he wore himself to a frazzle, maybe he would not feel so desperate.
* * *
“I thought I was doing everyone a favor by putting together this little impromptu dinner at the casino,” griped Wigwam as he faced an irate unicorn later in the day. “You especially should appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with Teepee.”
“To what purpose?” Bittersweet fumed. “Lil will be the center of attention; everyone dotes on the mare! Teepee won’t even notice that I’m at the table, and I’ll be stuck watching you two stallions succumb to the irresistible, talented, smart, and successful Lillooet.”
Wigwam grinned. “You’re all those things, too.”
“But I’m not perfect! And if I’m so irresistible, why doesn’t your brother know that I exist?”
The mare looked so forlorn that Wigwam gave her a hug. “I tell you what. I’ll dominate Lillooet’s time tonight so that Teepee has to pay attention to you. I’m sure you’ll be able to beguile yourself into his heart.” He kissed the tip of her nose teasingly just as the door opened– and Teepee and Lillooet peered in.
“We’re a little early...” Teepee began, but closed his mouth with a snap when he saw how Bittersweet and Wigwam had been spending their time.
“No problem,” Wigwam said. “Our table will be ready when we are.” He moved to accompany Lillooet to the dining room, leaving Bittersweet and Teepee to follow.
Teepee glowered at Bittersweet; and, although he held the door for her, he refrained from speaking with her other than monosyllabic replies to her questions, acting as if he did not want to miss one word that came from Lillooet’s mouth, causing Bittersweet’s mood to spiral even lower. So much for Wigwam’s plan for her to entice Teepee; the stallion despised her. And she despised Lillooet. What a lovely evening this was going to be!
* * *
Hawkley had been spending most of his time in the gaming room, mixing with the patrons and handling some slight problems that had arisen. When things were running smoothly again, he went off to find Garnet to ask her about a pending business trip that was in the planning stages; he found the mare with Wishbone looking out over the lake.
“So this is how you spend your time while on the casino’s payroll?” he intoned in his severest inflection of voice, causing the two ponies to whirl in his direction.
Seeing that it was only Hawkley, Garnet grinned. “I was just telling Wishbone about the fish that were planted in the lake today.”
“And I say the odds are that the raccoon, crayfish, and cranes will decimate the entire bunch,” Hawkley asserted.
“The fish can hide under the lily pads,” countered Garnet.
“Optimist!” teased Wishbone, taking Hawkley’s side.
“Just wait and see. Soon there’ll be big, graceful fish to watch from the gazebo.”
“And a menu item as well,” grinned Hawkley. “But, seriously, did Wigwam get back to you about the conference in Hayton next month?”
“No, but he should have the details by now.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to interrupt him tonight; Florabelle said he’s entertaining friends.”
“We can at least take a peak in the dining room to see what’s happening,” suggested Garnet, leading the two stallions in that direction. Looking across the dinner crowd, they found that Wigwam was still with his guests across the room. “Who is the pink mare? Do you know?” Garnet asked Hawkley.
Hawkley, just now catching sight of the visiting pony, looked flabbergasted. “What’s that shrew doing in Dream Valley?” he hissed.
Garnet and Wishbone looked sharply at Hawkley. The stallion had a reputation for his self-assured and suave manner; it was disconcerting to hear the bitterness in his voice and see the disgust on his face.
“She doesn’t look like a shrew, Hawkley,” Wishbone noted, looking back across the room to study the mare with the golden hair.
“Trust me, my young friend. Never turn your back on that one.”
“Hawkley, she looks very... respectable,” argued Garnet.
“You haven’t met her yet,” mumbled the stallion. “And when you do, remember that she’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The golden-haired mare, as if sensing an unwelcome presence, looked up to scan the room; her gaze soon discovered the source of the unfavorable vibes almost visibly emanating from the denim-blue stallion. A very brief look of surprise crossed her face before it was replaced by an appealing smile of recognition. Her reaction was obviously noticed by the others at her table, for Wigwam, Teepee, and Bittersweet were soon looking Hawkley’s way, too.
“I’m out of here!” Hawkley snarled, turning tail and heading for the lakeside exit.
“Where are you going?” queried Garnet in some alarm.
“To count fish.”
“In the dark?”
“It’ll be easier than facing that piranha,” growled the stallion as he disappeared outside.
“Shrew... wolf... piranha...” mused Wishbone. “This mare must be something else.”
“And yet she appears to be everything a mare should be,” Garnet frowned.
“She looks perfect to me,” admitted Wishbone, earning himself a jab in the ribs from his fiancee. “If you like the pallid, wilting-violet type,” Wishbone added in an effort to redeem himself.
* * *
Wishbone and Garnet got their chance to meet the pink mare later as Wigwam prepared to walk Lillooet to her hotel, leaving Teepee to accompany Bittersweet home to Dreamcatcher’s cabin in the Dark Forest. Garnet was instantly aware of Bittersweet’s reserve toward Lillooet, even though Wigwam had mentioned that the two mares’ college years had overlapped.
This uncertainty on Bittersweet’s part plus Hawkley’s earlier assertion that Lillooet was trouble, caused Garnet to look upon her new acquaintance with misgivings; she realized that although Lillooet showed a pleasing smile and said all the right things, there was a disconcerting undercurrent about the mare that made it difficult for Garnet to warm to her as Wishbone, Wigwam, and Teepee obviously had.
After Lillooet and Wigwam had left the casino, Garnet studied Bittersweet’s frowning face. “You’re fortunate to count such a prestigious pony as your friend,” she goaded, curious to hear the unicorn’s honest opinion of Lillooet.
But Garnet was to be disappointed. With no more than a disgruntled, “Ha!” Bittersweet swept out the door. Teepee, with the look of a martyr, shrugged his shoulders and followed in her wake.
* * *
It was hours after Wigwam had delivered Lillooet safely to her hotel room that Hawkley approached his apartment on the east side of town. Memories that he thought he had exorcized whirled through his head, promising him a sleepless night. He was so lost in his reflections that he did not notice the barely discernable shape of a pony in the shadows of the doorway until he could have reached out and touched her.
“Get lost!” he grated as he realized who the pony was.
“Why, Hawkley, that’s not a very friendly greeting,” purred Lillooet.
“We are not friends,” Hawkley reminded her. “Now go back to the hole you crawled out from.”
“Tsk, tsk.” The mare remained firmly planted before Hawkley’s apartment door, denying him the opportunity to physically shut her out. “Is this the fair-spoken and gallant stallion I met in Lakeland several years ago?”
“No, Lillooet, it isn’t. What you see before you is the smarter, if not embittered, version of that stallion. Now, if you will kindly stand aside...”
“Oh, Hawkley, I sensed your animosity when I first saw you at the casino, and I was afraid you were harboring some unfair resentment against me. It might be best if we talked this out... but in the privacy of your place, perhaps?”
“Anything you want to say, you can say right here. Just make it quick.”
“Hawkley,” Lillooet pouted. “I’m at a loss as to understand your harsh feelings toward me.”
A grating laugh erupted from the stallion. “Don’t play the innocent, Lil. It doesn’t suit you. I have the dubious honor of knowing what you’re really like under that facade of honesty and compassion.”
Reaching out to touch the stallion’s foreleg, the mare fretted. “I can’t make things right between us if I don’t understand where you’re coming from.”
Flicking her touch away as if she was a poisonous insect, Hawkley sneered, “Playing dumb isn’t your style, Lil. But if you want to play the game that way, I’ll be blunt so you can grasp what I’m going to say. You cost me that promotion at Graymare Corporation, plain and simple. Your conniving, meddling...”
“Hawkley! What are you getting at?” implored Lillooet. “I had nothing to do with the decisions at Graymare.”
“You expect me to believe it was only coincidence that you were at Graymare when my prospects went down the tubes?”
“The only reason I was there was to drum up grant money for the research project I was working on at the time. That didn’t give me any clout with the...”
Hawkley interrupted. “You’re going to stand here and deny that your feminine wiles weren’t put to use to influence Zarek to promote Ramrod over me regardless of our past work records?”
“You flatter yourself to think that Zarek and I spoke of you at all, Hawkley.” The words were spoken like honey, but their was venom hiding under the surface.
“I’ll admit, Lil, that I never suspected your interference at the time; I was too shocked to lose out on a promising position that had been mine for the taking... and to none other than the loser, Ramrod. You are aware, I’m sure, that he was dismissed after six months of substandard performance.”
“I don’t follow the careers of every pony I meet.”
Hawkley looked at her with pretended awe. “You can say that with a straight face.”
“Just what are you getting at?” Her poise beginning to crumble under the stallion’s unwavering loathsome attitude, Lillooet’s voice was strident.
“Ramrod couldn’t help himself, Lil. Before I left Graymare, he gloated over his success... and my failure. Your name came up.”
“You said yourself he was a loser. Why would you believe anything he told you?”
“Because it explained everything so well. He bragged about earning your undying devotion while the two of you were finishing up your course work at Springwell... something about the work he did for your thesis. And how he called in your debt by having you influence Zarek’s decision on which of us to promote.”
A look of pure hatred twitted across Lillooet’s face. “How dare he?” she seethed. Then, regaining her composure, she gave a toss of her head. “I’m surprised you believed his innuendoes, Hawkley. Surely my reputation speaks more loudly than some... loser’s... opinion.”
“What does it matter? You’re successful, and I found a job I enjoy. Our paths never have to cross again. Just be warned... I will not allow you to ingratiate yourself into Wigwam’s good graces just to further some ulterior motive you have to increase your value on the market.”
You will not allow?” spat Lillooet. “Both Wigwam and Teepee are counting on my publicity to drum-up financing for this Native Pony project of theirs. I don’t think they’d look kindly on any attempt by you to put me in a bad light.” Hawkley tried to comment, but Lillooet continued. “And let me warn you, Hawkley, that if you say one word against me to either of them, I’ll do everything in my power to cut you down a notch or two.”
Infuriatingly, Hawkley grinned. “Well, well... I touched a nerve, did I? How many other secrets do you hide, Lil? How many of your credits and awards are due to someone else’s competence, not your own?”
“I wouldn’t have the prestige I command if I didn’t live off my own talents!”
“But what talents are those, Lil?” The stallion asked in a deceptively soft voice as he reached out to caress a lock of her golden hair.
The mare slapped his hoof away in anger. “How dare you cast aspersions on my character?” she hissed. “I will enjoy bringing you down to the level you deserve!” She glared at him as if he was the most despicable creature she had ever laid eyes on, then went on her way.
Watching her angry departure, Hawkley experienced a moment of doubt over the wisdom of having incurred the mare’s wrath; but that skepticism was short-lived. With a snicker, he admitted to himself that he had long yearned to put the mare in her place; and he found the accomplishment of that goal to be very satisfying indeed.
* * *
It was several days later that Hawkley saw Lillooet again; he was taking some tallies to Wigwam’s office when the door opened and Lillooet emerged with Wigwam close behind her.
“Here’re those figures you wanted,” he said to Wigwam, avoiding Lillooet’s gaze.
“Thanks, Hawkley. Lillooet, this profligate is on my payroll.” Remembering the look of recognition that had passed between these two the evening of the dinner, he asked. “Are the two of you acquainted?” He moved to set Hawkley’s papers on his desk, thus missing the transfer of mutual dislike that shot between the two ponies.
“We’ve met,” admitted Hawkley. “Graymare funded a project for Lillooet while I was still there.” He granted the mare a cold smile.
“You weren’t with Graymare long, were you, Hawkley?” inquired the mare. “Are you comfortable with your position here at the casino?”
“Very comfortable. I look forward to a long, profitable liaison. Now, if the two of you will excuse me, I have some work to attend to.” With a brief nod, Hawkley made himself scarce.
Wigwam looked after the stallion in some surprise; it was unusual for Hawkley not to dally over a pretty face. Well, Wigwam shrugged, so much the better for him.
“Lillooet, shall we be off?” He offered his foreleg to the mare.
Lillooet clamped onto the foreleg possessively. “The sooner, the better.”
* * *
The tour of Pony Pride University had gone well. Lillooet had met with Memoria, the head of the history department, and Tarkington, in charge of the archeology program. Wigwam had even made a point of stopping by Vanguard’s office in the mathematics department to introduce the lovely researcher to his friend; the fact that Lillooet was an author of educational articles on Ponyland history prompted Vanguard to extend a tentative invitation to visit his home and meet his author-wife, the date to be verified once he had conferred with Sugarberry.
Following the campus visit, Wigwam took Lillooet to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe to experience the ambiance of Dream Valley. Over a banana split for the mare and a chocolate shake for the stallion, the two let their conversation turn to non-historic issues.
“If you and Bittersweet were in college together, did you ever meet her sister, Dreamcatcher?”
“No. I haven’t had the pleasure.” Lillooet concentrated on her banana split so that Wigwam would not see the flash of consternation over the introduction of Bittersweet into the conversation.
“I’ll take you over to Dreamcatcher’s shop at the mall when we’re done here; you’ll enjoy it.”
“That’s the store that will be moving to the casino complex when the construction is done?”
“Yes. Her kiosk is insufficient to display the variety of items that the Native Ponies create. The new Native Dreams shop will fulfill a number of Native Ponies’ dreams.”
“Wigwam,” Lillooet asked suddenly, “are you satisfied with Hawkley’s performance at the casino?” The mare’s eyes were filled with concern.
“Indeed I am,” Wigwam verified readily. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, nothing, really,” Lillooet stated with a wave of her hoof. “I just sensed... undertones... when I was visiting Graymare.” Seeing the slight withdrawal that her statement had elicited, the mare quickly added, “Not that I put much merit on rumors I hear that may be motivated by envy as much as anything. Zarek, the executive administrator, held Hawkley in high esteem. I was surprised to find that Hawkley had left Graymoor; I’d thought he’d have proved himself indispensable.”
“He has proved himself indispensable... at the casino,” Wigwam stated, ending that particular discussion.
“Oh, look at the darling foals!” Lillooet purred, grabbing at the first thing that came into view in an effort to renew Wigwam’s compassionate impression of her. “Aren’t they adorable?”
Enjoying a girl’s day out, Sugarberry, Tabby, and Tamara came into the ice cream shop with Banderol, Faline, and Hugh, bearing packages with the logos of a number of the mall stores. Faline, the oldest of the foals– now a perky two-year old– assumed a motherly role over her little cousin, Hugh, who was less than two months of age. Banderol, at eight months, adored the little pink unicorn and ignored the tiny colt.
“Are the two adult unicorns twins?” queried Lillooet of Wigwam. From across the room, Tabby and Tamara did appear to be identical in nature.
“They’re only cousins, actually. Tabby will tell you that she has the lovelier eye color– lavender.” Wigwam grinned at his eating companion. “Your eyes are extraordinary... the dappled shade of a meadow brook with the sun sparkling off the ripples.”
“Why, Wigwam, how debonair!” Lillooet tapped his hoof playfully while batting her eyelashes. “I’ll bet you compliment all the mares that extravagantly.”
“Only the prettiest ones,” he admitted, enjoying the opportunity to flirt with the mare. Tabby had been so right to lecture him on his overly possessive attitude of Chocolate Chip.... although, come to think of it, that chocolate brown mare’s blue eyes had hidden highlights in them that erupted into veritable fireworks when she was about to be truly kissed... Wigwam shook his head to bring himself back to the moment. “The strawberry-patterned mare is Sugarberry, Vanguard’s wife; you may have noticed the resemblance between father and son.”
“So she’s the author,” Lillooet murmured. “I’ve noticed her books on the shelves, but I must admit that I seldom read that style of writing.”
Wigwam laughed. “Sugarberry has a romantic nature, not an historical one. You’ll like her, though. Come, if you’re finished, we can go meet the girls right now.”
Sugarberry warmed to Lillooet immediately; anyone who made a fuss over her son was automatically accepted; and Lillooet had not only commented on how cute Banderol was but had drawn him into her forelegs as well. And learning that Lillooet had already met her husband and been issued a dinner invitation, Sugarberry quickly cemented those plans for the following evening, including the others as well although Tamara and Philippe had a previous engagement. After Wigwam had escorted Lillooet from the shop, Tabby gloated. “I told you my talk would do him some good, Sug. Wigwam isn’t lamenting over Chocolate Chip at all any more.”
“At least, not as far as we can see,” Sugarberry cautiously agreed.
* * *
Walking home on the bustling streets of New Pony, Chocolate Chip and Xavier were headed to their apartments at the end of the workday, comparing notes on how hectic the day had been.
“Fabia turned the entire Grand Heights analysis over to me; she said that she has too much to do on getting the Radcliff presentation ready; and as Tarn is still studying that data, he’s no help to me at all. I’ll have to work tonight to get some plan of action lined up.” The brown mare nodded toward her attache case.
“You should leave your work at the office, Chocolate Chip.”
“That won’t get the job done. Besides, I like being busy.”
“All work and no play...” Xavier grinned. “To prevent you from becoming dull, why don’t the two of us go out to dinner tomorrow night? I’ve been wanting to try that new restaurant over on Seventh Avenue.”
“Are you sure? I’ve heard it’s awfully expensive.”
“That’s my worry, now, isn’t it? Will you join me?”
The stallion looked at Chocolate Chip with such an aspect of entreaty that the mare laughed. “Okay, if you want to blow your entire week’s worth of wages on one meal, who am I to deny you?”
“Great!” Xavier said, his smile attesting to his sincere pleasure at her acceptance of his plan.
Chocolate Chip herself felt comfortably pleased herself.
* * *
Sugarberry and Vanguard welcomed Wigwam and Lillooet and Tabby and Thomas to their home for the planned dinner. Agatha and Hubert, Tabby’s parents, were included as well, Hubert having experience with many of the ancient cultures of Ponyland in which Lillooet would have an interest. Gravitating to Agatha, Faline and Banderol were ensured of their fair allotment of attention, Faline being perfectly willing to share Grandma with the younger colt. After settling the guests in the living room, Sugarberry slipped out to the kitchen to pop the dinner rolls into the oven and to check on the other dishes. Tabby trailed in after her.
“Need any help?” the pink unicorn asked.
“The napkins,” Sugarberry said. “I was on the way to the dining room with them when the doorbell rang, and I set them somewhere...” Both mares looked around the kitchen.
“Here they are, in Banderol’s high chair,” Tabby noted. “And why does Wigwam rate the dining room instead of the kitchen?”
“It’s Lillooet who rates the dining room,” Sugarberry grinned, fanning away the blast of hot air as she opened the oven door. “Besides, the room needed a good cleaning, and this forced the issue.”
While Tabby disappeared on her errand, Sugarberry ascertained that everything was in readiness as soon as the biscuits were properly browned. She was getting a pitcher of milk out of the refrigerator when Tabby returned.
“Where’d the pretty flowers come from?”
“Vanguard brought them to me. This dinner was his idea, and he felt sorry for the extra work involved– although he did most of the cleaning.” A buzzer sounded. “Well, that’s it,” Sugarberry said, pulling the dinner rolls out of the oven and transferring them to a basket. “If you’ll set these on the table, I’ll go fetch the hungry ponies.”
* * *
“I’ll never eat sushi again!” declared Chocolate Chip as she and Xavier left the restaurant; a shiver ran through the mare just thinking about it.
“I enjoyed it,” chuckled Xavier. “I expected a more cosmopolitan outlook from you, Chocolate Chip.”
“I like my fish cooked.”
“What about the rest of the dinner, though. It was very good, wasn’t it?” coaxed the stallion.
Realizing that she was being petty, Chocolate Chip flashed a smile at her companion. “It was excellent. The decor was astounding as well. I truly enjoyed our evening, Xavier. Thanks for including me.”
“I wouldn’t have gone without you, you know. It wouldn’t have been much fun by myself.”
“Don’t you have a special someone in New Pony?” queried Chocolate Chip, casting a shy glance at the stallion. She had often wondered about Xavier’s circumstances. They usually talked of nothing but their jobs and their hometowns.
“There’s a mare at work I enjoy talking with, but she’s dating some executive from across the street.”
“And back home?”
“Let’s just say there was potential there, but I’m committed to my life in New Pony now. Mona doesn’t like the city. I see her on the holidays when I get back to Happy Hollow.”
“I’ll be going back to Dream Valley next month for my brother’s wedding,” confided Chocolate Chip. “It’ll be my first trip back since I came to New Pony.”
“Let me warn you– you’re going to feel out of sync when you get there. Subtle changes that the locals have adjusted to without realizing it will seem like major transformations to you. And personalities that have developed will make you feel as if you don’t even know some of your old friends any more.”
As Xavier went on giving examples of some of the shocks he received upon arriving back in Happy Hollow, Chocolate Chip’s mind wandered to what she could expect when she went back to Dream Valley. Would Wishbone and Garnet have edged her out of their lives by now? Would Fern and Toby seem like strangers? And what of Sugarberry and Vanguard? Had they found that their lives were far better without her presence in the house and would they resent her intrusion? And how would Wigwam react to her? Had she succeeded in turning him away from her to find a new match, someone who would be willing to live her life under Wigwam’s care in the confines of Dream Valley?
“Chocolate Chip? You’re home.”
Hearing her name, Chocolate Chip realized that she and Xavier had indeed made it to her apartment. She grinned sheepishly. “I was miles away.”
“I’ve been a bore, I’ll admit, rambling on about people and places you know nothing of.”
“I’m the one who spaced out,” Chocolate Chip said, putting the key into the lock and swinging open the door. Turning to face Xavier, she smiled. “I did have a wonderful time with you this evening.”
“Regardless of the sushi?”
“Forget the sushi,” Chocolate Chip commanded. “I just remembered that I received a box of cookies from Sugarberry in today’s mail and haven’t had time yet to break into them. How about a cookie and a glass of milk before you go?”
“Are any of them chocolate chip?”
Rolling her eyes, the young mare grinned. “If only you knew how many times...”
“I’m sorry I said that. Forgive me?”
“Yes, but to show your sincerity, you have no choice but to stay for a snack.”
Xavier grinned. “My choice exactly.”
* * *
“Your friends are very nice ponies,” Lillooet granted as she and Wigwam walked away from the house on Fifth Street. “I enjoyed my time with them.”
“They enjoyed your company as well,” Wigwam smiled. “As did I.”
“I think I’ll miss Dream Valley when I leave two days from now,” Lillooet confessed.
“You’ll always be welcome to return.”
Lillooet was silent for a time before she responded to that softly voiced invitation. It would be rather entertaining to aggravate Hawkley with her presence. And Wigwam seemed to be a lonely stallion, but lonely for whom? It would be intriguing to discover who had wounded his heart and offer some aid in healing it.
No! It was not worth getting involved in some entanglement at this point in her career; and, besides, he was not even her type. The mare sighed. “I’ve got commitments to honor that require me to move on, Wigwam; although, for the first time in my life, I regret not having put down roots.”
“It’s not too late yet.”
“I’ll definitely give the idea some thought while I work on my next couple of assignments.” She grinned at the stallion. “How did this conversation get so pensive?”
“Maybe it’s the effect of the moonlight,” Wigwam suggested, waving a hoof skyward.
“Or the company.” The two ponies’ gazes locked briefly before they both lapsed into a cognitive silence.
Arriving at their destination, Wigwam accompanied Lillooet up to her hotel room. At the doorway, they faced one another. “How will you be spending the next couple of days?” Wigwam asked.
“Teepee and Fetish are going to help me dig through the files of the historical society tomorrow, and my last day here will be spent absorbing the spirit of the Native Pony site; I find it’s helpful to connect with the hidden aura of a place before I start to write about it.”
“Maybe I could bring a picnic lunch out to the site, if it wouldn’t be an imposition.”
“No, it wouldn’t be an imposition; but Teepee has already invited me to join him for lunch at his camp; I’ll be leaving from there.”
For a moment, Wigwam felt as if he had received a curt dismissal; but there was something drawing him into the depths of those blue eyes that was perversely inviting. What he wouldn’t give to be lost in a particular pair of blue eyes that had once brightened only for him. Before he quite knew what was happening, he found himself kissing the mare before him.
He found it severely disappointing. It was not Chocolate Chip.
“Good night, Lillooet. I look forward to reading your article.”
He barely noticed the amusement in the mare’s eyes as he turned to make a hasty retreat.
* * *
In New Pony, Xavier was browsing through Chocolate Chip’s music CD’s while waiting for the coffee. “You have everything ever put out by Philippe; you must be quite a fan of his.”
“He married a mare from Dream Valley– and they make their home there– so he’s like our hometown hero.”
“How do you explain all the Native Pony stuff?” Xavier asked, indicating a number of cases with the native artwork.
He looked up at Chocolate Chip in time to see a blush darken her cheeks. “Wigwam thought I... well, it’s beautiful music, very reflective. And Dream Valley was and still is influenced by the Native Pony culture.” She busied herself rearranging the cookies on a plate.
“I’m beginning to think that I’ve missed something by never visiting the place.”
“Well, you could always accompany me to my brother’s wedding.”
Xavier moved forward to help the mare with the tray of food and drink she was wielding. “I just might do that,” he grinned.
As the two ponies sat on the couch enjoying the taste of home, they talked of many things, both grateful for the other’s company. When Chocolate Chip finally realized just how late it was getting, nonetheless, she smiled at Xavier. “This was my best day yet in New Pony, but I think we’d better save some things to discuss for another time.”
“You’re very comfortable to talk with; I hope we can do this another time.” Xavier stood up and offered a hoof to Chocolate Chip, assisting her to her hooves. He did not release his hold on her, however. “And you can tell your friend back in Dream Valley that her cookies were as sweet as you, Chocolate Chip.”
Before Chocolate Chip could respond, he met her lips with his. For a moment, the mare was stunned into inaction; but suddenly her heart cried out to her that this was not Wigwam– and she, therefore, wanted no part of it. Bracing a hoof against Xavier’s chest, she pushed against the stallion, abruptly ending the kiss. She met his questioning gaze with a wry smile. “I’m sorry.”
The stallion responded to his rejection gracefully. “It never hurts to get knocked down a peg or two,” he grinned. “You’ve nothing to feel sorry for.”
“You’re my best friend in New Pony; I don’t want to lose you.”
“Fat chance of that happening. Let’s both forget the kiss. I’ll see you Monday morning as usual.” He brushed her cheek with his hoof and was gone.
Chocolate Chip stood where she was for a long time after Xavier left, trying to come to grips with her emotions. She had made a wonderful friend in New Pony, and she looked upon him as an anchor in this city that sometimes frightened her. So why could she not accept an innocent kiss from him?
Her inmost heart had betrayed her, bringing Wigwam’s memory alive for her after weeks of trying to relegate him to the recesses of her mind. Her busy schedule at work had gone a long way in keeping her thoughts from him, but it was her feelings that had refused to release the touch of him... the look of him... the sound of him... the scent of him... and Xavier’s attempted kiss had exploded her sensibilities to just how much she missed the orange stallion.
Chocolate Chip closed her eyes. She was living her dream, self-sufficient in New Pony with an occupation she loved and for which she was getting well-paid. She was carrying more than her fair share of the workload at Worth Hydroshed Firkins; without her, Fabia would never be able to meet a deadline. Her apartment was small but cozy; she enjoyed the freedom living alone allowed her. If she had married Wigwam, she would have felt compelled to take a job in Dream Valley that would not have fulfilled her aspirations and would have denied her the opportunity to become successful on her own merits.
But I would have been loved! her soul cried out.
A tear slipped down Chocolate Chip’s face, but she hastily brushed it away. No, she would not allow herself to become a namby-pamby because of this traitorous nostalgia. She was living her life as she wanted to live it; she should be feeling proud rather than so very, very empty. Then why could she not check the flow of tears that came unbidden like a springtime flood?
* * *
Finally, things are back to normal, Bittersweet thought to herself as she labored her way up a steep incline on her way to the Native Pony site. Lillooet was gone, leaving several stallions’ hearts bruised but not broken; and Wigwam had taken back his responsibility for keeping the work-ponies on the Native Dreams construction in line– and more power to him. She was sick and tired of trying to reason with stubborn, opinionated stallions who could only see things as they wanted to see them.
Bittersweet frowned. Some things always stayed the same. “And Teepee could not care less about me,” she griped out loud.
The unicorn brightened to think of Teepee’s expression when he found that she was the messenger he was expecting. Digger had returned to Dream Valley from a few hours work at the site with a request for Domino from Teepee to deliver some specialized equipment to the site. Fetish had been with Domino at the time and had volunteered to take the items to Teepee; but a stop first at the Native Dreams kiosk at the mall to tell his wife of his plans had proven his undoing as Dreamcatcher reminded him that he was expected to accept Red Fox’s delivery of wares that afternoon; and only he– Fetish– could determine the quality of the never before offered merchandise.
Bittersweet, when she had finished packaging a customer’s purchase, had found both her sister’s and her brother-in-law’s gazes on her; and without giving her a choice, they had strapped her with the errand of delivering the supplies to Teepee.
The day was lovely for a walk, so Bittersweet did not mind the trek. Butterflies flitted around her, birds serenaded her, rabbits peered closely at her, and a warm, humid breeze teased her tresses. The passing miles also allowed her to assess her time in Dream Valley since her arrival in March.
She could not fault her employment– she loved working with her sister and handling the paperwork for the business. She was not entirely happy about living with Dreamcatcher and Fetish, but her presence in their home did provide a convenient nanny for Tamarack– and the reason Dreamcatcher needed help was the demands of the active toddler. She had amassed a diverse array of friends– there was no one she had met in Dream Valley in whom she had not been able to find some good quality (Lillooet did not count; she was only visiting). There was only one deficiency that she could determine– she had not found a stallion who could steal her heart away.
No, that’s not true, Bittersweet chided herself. She had found a stallion, but he did not reciprocate her feelings. Even worse, the feelings he did have toward her were all negative. She had never been so shut out by anyone. It just was not fair!
She was going to enjoy their meeting today, however. Over the miles, she had determined that she would be all that was pleasant, just to aggravate the stallion. Having come to the realization that she had been paying back all his cold shoulders in kind, she had now decided that she would be cloyingly charming– not that she expected it to get her anywhere. She was sure it would infuriate him; and at this point, that was the best she could hope for– salve her wounded pride, so to speak.
Her mind had been so busy that Bittersweet arrived at her destination before she realized it and practically stumbled into the neatly defined depression that Teepee was working in.
“Watch it!” Teepee grumbled as loose soil that Bittersweet had kicked up began to trickle down his back. Looking up with a scowl and seeing who had interrupted him, his face darkened even further. “Oh, it’s you.” A quick glance around showed up no other ponies, so he asked, “Where’s Wigwam?”
Bittersweet gritted her teeth. This stallion was infuriating! But remembering her resolve to give him honey for vinegar, she bubbled, “Good afternoon, Teepee. It’s so nice to see you again, too.”
Teepee squatted back and looked at the mare through squinted eyes. “This is a social call?”
With a trill of laughter, Bittersweet smiled. “On such a lovely day to surround myself by nature, I was chosen to bring you the equipment you asked for.” She slipped the backpack off her shoulder and retrieved the tools Fetish had given her.
Standing to take possession of the requested items, Teepee scanned the area around them again. “You didn’t come out here alone, did you?”
The insufferable stallion had not even thanked her for her efforts, and Bittersweet found it difficult to maintain her candied demeanor. “As everyone else had other obligations to attend to, I didn’t have much choice.” She returned the stallion’s scowl, then flounced off to make a cursory inspection of what had been done at the site since her last visit. It was only then that she realized that there were no other ponies working with Teepee. “Where is everyone?” she queried. Not even Clever Clover or Buttercrunch was in sight.
“It’s like you said– everyone else had other obligations.” The stallion had come out of his dig and was fussing with one of the tools Bittersweet had brought, but he looked up and caught her eye for a brief moment before returning his scrutiny to the calipers in his hoof. The brooding gaze of the stallion sent a thrill through Bittersweet that was quickly squelched as Teepee added brusquely, “Thanks for bringing this stuff, but I gotta get back to work now.” He grabbed up all the equipment and headed for a point some yards away.
So this was it? She was dismissed? The two of them were alone in this isolated valley, and he could not bring himself to be even mildly civil? Bittersweet bristled. Where had she gone wrong with this exasperating stallion? She was positive he had not taken her in dislike when they were newly acquainted. Both Wigwam and Teepee had gone out of their way to make her feel welcome; but while her friendship with Wigwam had grown through the development of Native Dreams, the ties between her and Teepee had frazzled, unfurled, and snapped.
Why did she like the stallion so much if he did not return her feelings? Bittersweet’s gaze rested on the blue pony as he worked, his muscles rippling beneath his skin. He was definitely not a romantic flowers-and-candy sort of stallion. On the contrary, he was rough, caustic, almost surly; but he had a wry sense of humor and a blunt, practical view of life that Bittersweet appreciated. He had traveled extensively, affording him a wide variety of experiences that gave him a temerarious attitude that she found appealing. She was sure he would be a stalwart friend, if one could get through the brick wall he had erected around himself.
As Bittersweet watched the stallion at work, it dawned on her that his job would proceed much more efficiently if he had someone to help him; as it was, his measurements were being interrupted by the necessity to record the results on paper. The provoking stallion was too stubborn to ask her for help, preferring to make a simple task difficult.
Marching to his location, Bittersweet came to an abrupt halt and tapped her hoof derisively. “Two could accomplish twice as much in half the time.”
Coolly, Teepee looked up from jotting some numbers on his chart. “Oh, are you still here?”
With a return look that could turn a geyser into ice, Bittersweet grabbed the clipboard away from Teepee. “You tell me the dimensions, I’ll write them down.”
“You wouldn’t know which column to put them in.”
“I’m a quick learner.” She sat down, the pencil posed and ready, a no-nonsense expression on her face.
Teepee met her mutinous stare for a few moments, then shrugged and went back to his measuring.
As the two ponies set about their task, few words were spoken other than the numbers Teepee conveyed and an occasional clarification on Bittersweet’s part. As the time passed, however, Bittersweet began asking questions about the artifacts that they were working with; and Teepee progressed from unwilling, abrupt replies to animated, full-blown lectures with even an intermittent smile thrown in for good measure. Bittersweet was so engrossed in the work and the instruction that she herself did not notice the camaraderie that had sprung up between them; neither did she realize that her natural response to the stallion– with none of the animosity or the artificiality that she had so often adopted in the past– put her in a very becoming and irresistible light.
They were both laughing over a story Teepee had shared when a loud rumble echoed out of the sky. Looking up in startled wonder, they discerned that storm clouds had moved across the valley and a downpour was imminent.
“Where did that come from?” asked Teepee, unaware of just how much time had passed in the enjoyable exchange with Bittersweet. He quickly began gathering up his supplies while Bittersweet hugged the clipboard to her as a gust of wind swept down upon them. “Run for the tipi before you get soaked!” ordered Teepee just as the first heavy drops of rain started pelting them.
The tipi, an improvement to the site donated by Fetish and Dreamcatcher, was being used by Teepee as a summer home, allowing him an easy commute. Set on a level area overlooking the work in progress, the tipi stood as sentinel, a silent testimonial of the Native Ponies who had once lived in this valley. The two ponies raced through the onslaught of the sudden downpour to gain entry, and Bittersweet stood gasping and dripping as Teepee stopped in the doorway to survey the sky. “It won’t last long,” he drawled. “The sky’s already blue to the west.”
“That may be, but your home is going to be flooded if I don’t use a towel on this mane.” Bittersweet tossed her head, sending droplets flying through the air.
Teepee grinned. “You do have the look of a drowned rat about you.” He crossed the space inside the tipi and grabbed a towel for each of them. The next couple of minutes were spend sopping up the worst of the rain while the heavens continued to douse the land outside.
When Bittersweet felt comfortable again, she noted that Teepee was once again in the doorway and moved to join him. As suddenly as the shower had come it, it had now ended.
“I told you it wouldn’t last long,” Teepee bragged, stepping out into the wet world. The last word was barely out of his mouth when another deluge dumped from an overhead cloud, soaking the stallion once more. Bittersweet could not contain her laughter as she stayed dry in the enclosure. But not for long.
The stallion, enjoying himself immensely, reached out and grabbed the mare, pulling her into the downpour with him. Like two foals, they joined hooves and circled in the rain, their faces uplifted to catch the refreshing water. Bittersweet had never been so happy; this was living, to be doing something crazy with the stallion she idolized. Even if they never shared another moment together, this one would live forever in her mind.
Satisfied with the events it had precipitated, the rain once again ended in a deafening silence and a radiant beam of sunshine. Teepee and Bittersweet stopped their dancing, but Teepee did not release his hold of the mare. He found her beautiful with her long tangerine mane plastered against her mocha body, her periwinkle blue eyes sparkling like precious jewels. In the silence and the sunshine, he leaned toward her as she met him halfway, and they shared a special kiss.
Bittersweet could have died on the spot, she was so happy. With her eyes closed, she lingered over the closeness of the stallion even after their lips had parted. Through the freshly washed air, she heard his voice as he whispered, “You’ve bewitched me.”
With a smile that spoke of heaven, Bittersweet opened her eyes... and gasped to see such intense anger and hatred directed at her that she could not breathe.
“You despicable, manipulating wench!” the stallion snarled. “I never want to see you again!” With a look of pure venom, he turned and strode away.
The black clouds rolled eastward and the sun gained dominance, but the tears streaming down Bittersweet’s cheeks bespoke of a more intense storm than nature could have imagined.
* * *
Stumbling through her first part of the trek back to Dream Valley because of the blinding tears, Bittersweet was exhausted when she reached the city limits and, craving companionship to sooth her rattled nerves, sought sanctuary in Wigwam’s office at the casino. She found the stallion alone and sank into a chair by his desk.
“Good grief!” Wigwam choked as he looked up from his paperwork and saw the distraught mare. Her eyes were clouded with tears, her face pale except for the dark area under her eyes, her mane was tousled like it had not been combed for days, and her spirit seemed beaten. “What’s wrong?” He jumped to his hooves and came around to pull her into his forelegs, smoothing her hair as he held her close, waiting for the newest barrage of tears to dissipate. “What happened, Bittersweet. Talk to me.”
The tears stopped, but the mare refused to lift her head. She needed Wigwam’s strength right now, for she knew she would be unable to stand without it. The stallion allowed her time to compose herself, all the while dreading to hear what disaster had occurred to send the mare into such a disastrous state. With one foreleg remaining steadily around her, he managed to notify Ceara to hold all his calls and prevent any interruptions. Then, as if handling a small foal, he settled the mare into the chair once more and crouched before her.
“You’ve got to talk to me, Bittersweet. I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“I...” Tears threatened again with the effort to speak. The mare closed her eyes and gulped, trying to regain her sensibilities. She grasped Wigwam’s hoof as if it was a lifeline. “I don’t know what happened,” she quavered.
“Who’s responsible for setting you off this way?” Wigwam growled, unable to picture any event that would reduce the normally dominant personality to jelly... and vowing his revenge on the perpetrator.
“Teepee,” Bittersweet managed to whisper.
“My brother did this to you?” Wigwam roared disbelievingly.
Bittersweet flinched at his tone, but she responded. “He hates me.”
Taking a deep breath to steady his pulse, Wigwam prodded. “Tell me what happened.”
With a number of painful pauses, Bittersweet was able to stutter through the events of the afternoon, giving Wigwam a disjointed but insightful impression of what had occurred between the two ponies. Knowing full well of Bittersweet’s infatuation with his brother, Wigwam could understand how she would have been so terribly wounded by Teepee’s sudden and harsh rejection. What he could not understand is how his brother could be so ill-mannered and unfeeling as to subject the mare to such caddish behavior. His older brother was not known for his sensitivity, but neither was he a complete boor.
“Maybe you misinterpreted what he said,” he lamely surmised.
“No one could have misinterpreted the disgust in his eyes,” Bittersweet returned. “For some reason, he finds me completely distasteful.”
“Then why did he kiss you?”
Her eyes filled with grief, Bittersweet touched her hoof to her lips. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I really don’t know.”
* * *
Having allowed Wigwam to fetch her some nourishment while she tidied herself, Bittersweet nonetheless refused the stallion’s offer to walk her home. Having washed her tear-stained face and combed her tangled hair, she felt a bit more like her old self; and by allowing her heartache to be replaced with anger, she was able to assume a confident air in front of Wigwam, even though her heart was in shreds. With one final strengthening hug from the stallion, the mare said goodbye and headed for the cabin in the Dark Forest. Her head drooping, she did not notice that Teepee had arrived back in town as well.
Seeing Bittersweet leaving the casino did nothing to assuage the guilt Teepee felt over what had transpired at the dig site. The mare looked as if she had been put through the ringer, and Teepee knew he was responsible. He watched her until she was out of sight, abhorring himself for taking liberties with his brother’s girlfriend.
The afternoon had not been easy for the stallion. Having Bittersweet appear in front of him as if he had conjured her up out of his dreams had unsettled him. He had found the mare desirable from the first time he had met her, but Bittersweet had gravitated to Wigwam, spending what seemed to the jealous stallion an inordinate amount of time in Wigwam’s company. Those two shared an easygoing relationship that spoke of a deep and abiding respect and admiration for one another. Teepee would have given all his material possessions to have such a friendship with the mare, but he refused to step between his brother and Bittersweet. Instead, he brooded and banked his smouldering discontent from a distance, hiding his true feelings behind a mask of indifference and setting himself apart by burying himself in his work at the Native Pony site.
To have Bittersweet throw herself into his world as she had done this day had preyed on his sensibilities until he could no longer refute the deep yearning he had for her. To talk with her, to laugh with her, to feel the touch of her was too much for him; and when the chance had presented itself, he had capitulated like some green colt who did not have an ounce of decency or common sense. He had taken his brother’s Juliet into his forelegs and kissed her; and even worse, she had responded to him as if Wigwam did not exist. It was a double travesty with both of them at fault for relegating Wigwam to the furthest niches of their minds while they shared a kiss that could only be called earthshaking. Bittersweet had bewitched him and drawn him over the line of proper behavior. He would never be able to face her again.
Teepee also knew he would never be able to face his brother again with this guilt hanging between them. It occurred to him that Bittersweet herself might have admitted the afternoon’s travesty to him, which would explain the hung-dog attitude she had displayed on leaving. He could not blame Wigwam if he had reacted in anger and disappointment to hear that his feelings had been so utterly ignored by two ponies whom he should have been able to trust. Teepee strengthened his resolve and marched into Wigwam’s office to bare his soul and take the consequences, bracing himself to face the possibility that he might have to leave Dream Valley to avoid the future pain of seeing Wigwam and Bittersweet together.
Finding Wigwam staring out the window with a sullen expression on his face, Teepee was sure that harsh words had been exchanged between the stallion and Bittersweet. He also knew that he was right in the middle of all the repugnance and despair that Wigwam must be feeling. Teepee cleared his throat. “About what happened...”
“I heard,” Wigwam said, turning to him with a scowl that reminded him of their father’s countenance when he had been preparing to upbraid them for some prank or another. “What do you think you were trying to prove?”
“I lost it for a moment; Bittersweet looked so...”
“She’s a beautiful pony; I’ll be the first to admit that. However, she’s not to be trifled with.”
The kiss had not been a trifle. “I take full responsibility.”
“You should; she was devastated.”
“I’m sorry; it won’t happen again.”
“No. I expect it won’t.” Wigwam’s gaze was like a piercing dart as he tried to get a handle on his brother’s inner drives. “She wants to settle down with a home and a family, you know.”
“You’ve asked her, then?”
“Of course. We’ve discussed it, anyway.” Wigwam grinned, remembering some of the topics the two of them had broached in between their haranguing over Native Dreams.. “There isn’t much that girl won’t talk about.”
So it was true. Wigwam was planning a future with Bittersweet. “I saw her leave here; she looked depressed. You didn’t come down hard on her, did you?”
“Why would I? You’re the one at fault.”
“I’ve admitted that, and I said I’m sorry.”
“You should be telling Bittersweet that, not me.” He stared at his brother a moment. “Why did you run out on her?”
“Why did I...” Teepee was distraught. “Because I came to my senses, that’s why.”
“I’d say you lost any sense you ever had.”
“What? You think I’d take advantage of the situation with the mare you intend to marry?”
Wigwam looked confused. “What has Chocolate Chip got to do with this conversation?’
“Chocolate Chip? She cut you off, remember? You said a minute ago that you and Bittersweet were contemplating marriage.”
“Whoa!” Wigwam’s hooves came up as if he could physically block those words. “I said no such thing. We were talking about Bittersweet wanting to marry you.”
“Me?” The conversation was proving too much for Teepee. “But you and...”
“Bittersweet and I are great friends and I hope we can remain so, but it’s you she’s been trying to impress. I’ll always love Chocolate Chip.”
This was not making sense to Teepee. “Bittersweet’s not of romantic interest to you?”
“No.”
Teepee still was not convinced. “You’re with her every time I turn around.”
“Native Dreams has been a big undertaking for both of us, and it does have a demanding share of business concerns to be addressed; of course, we’re together often... for business reasons. Not to say that Bittersweet isn’t more than that... I value her friendship. But her heart, big brother, is pining for some notice from you. Why do you think she was out at the site today?”
Sitting in gaping bewilderment, Teepee tried to make sense of this latest conversation with his brother. Had he really been so blind, so misguided, that he had assumed a relationship between Wigwam and Bittersweet that had never existed? Thick-headed he might be, but even Teepee could eventually see the truth. He jumped up, raking a hoof through his mane. “Do you know where she was headed when she left here?” He had a lot of explaining to do.
“To Dreamcatcher’s cabin.”
Teepee was already out the door.
* * *
Moving dejectedly, Bittersweet was not yet home when Teepee caught sight of her; he chided himself once again for having cast the normally vibrant mare into the doldrums with his show of self-righteous behavior after the stolen kiss. If he had declared his love for her right then and there, he could have avoided this tangled and melancholic aftermath.
Leaving the path, Bittersweet headed to a grove of low-growth trees that edged the Dark Forest, and Teepee followed her. Fearing that the mare would lash out at him when she realized he was near, Teepee kept his presence from the mare until she appeared more approachable.
Under the shelter of the trees, her mood seemed to lighten somewhat as she brushed her hoof over the lacy heads of the white Queen Anne’s Lace and stopped to listen to a bird song. Teepee was pleased to find that Mother Nature was having a soothing effect on the mare’s senses and calculated that it would now be safe to announce himself.
Bittersweet had just picked a stem of bergamont and buried her nose in the minty fragrance it emitted when Teepee stepped forward, cracking a twig as he did so. The mare whirled around; and in a blink of an eye, all her new-found composure evaporated. Seeing who it was that shared her haven, she hit him with a barrage of accusatory diatribe, tossing the flower she had been holding so tenderly at him with undisguised wrath.
“You despicable, beastly, abominable monster. Did you remember some more insults you could heap on me? But no matter what you think of me, I think you are the most disagreeable, lamentable, perverse excuse for a pony that I’ve ever seen.”
Catching the flower that came at him, Teepee agreed. “So true. That’s why I came to apologize.”
In the process of taking a breath so she could further expound on the stallion’s extensive repertoire of faults, Bittersweet choked at the stallion’s words. She narrowed her eyes and spat, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Infuriatingly, Teepee grinned and made himself comfortable on a granite rock amidst the undergrowth. “It means I was a complete stooge and have come to ask for mercy.” He extended the flower back to her as a peace offering, but she ignored it, wondering what the stallion was after.
“You expect me to believe you’re sincere after what you said to me?”
“Apologies are usually rendered after a misunderstanding, and I messed-up big-time.” He sniffed the aromatic flower she had refused, then winked at her. “Apologies are worthless if they’re not accepted.”
The mood of the stallion was so altered from the aftermath of the kiss that the mare unwillingly unbent a bit. “If it eases your conscience, I’ll accept it; but it doesn’t change the fact that I think you’re a detestable low-life.”
With a show of having been wrongly maligned, Teepee breathed deeply and slowly exhaled; he stared at Bittersweeet with those brooding eyes. Finally he spoke. “You may not be aware of one of the reasons I returned to Dream Valley.”
“I wish you’d stayed away!”
“Do you, sugar?”
Thoroughly miffed at his using such a familiar term with her, Bittersweet frowned, regaining all her former contempt, but Teepee kept talking.
“I’d reached a point in my life where I wanted to settle down with a wife and start a family.”
“Why are you telling me this now? I don’t care what you’re about.”
“I want you to understand where I was coming from this afternoon. I did find someone, Bittersweet, that I could share my life with.”
The mare flinched to hear the stallion admit that he had already made a choice as to whom his wife would be. That proved that the kiss had just been a whim when his heart belonged to someone else. Well, she would show him that it no longer bothered her. “Congratulations... but I sympathize with the mare.”
Grinning again, Teepee was not thwarted. Had not Wigwam informed him of Bittersweet’s love? “The mare may need your sympathy with the likes of me, I’ll grant you. However, she has a charitable nature; she’s also pleasant and smart and proficient... and she’s dashed pretty, too. In fact, she’s perfect for me.”
Bittersweet found the description too close to the words she had used to describe Lillooet to Wigwam. Under her breath, she muttered, “Lillooet, I’ll wager.”
His sharp ears catching the name, Teepee chuckled. “Oh, no, Bittersweet. Not Lillooet.... someone much closer to home.”
Her curiosity now captured, Bittersweet took a step closer to the stallion. “Which one of Dream Valley’s beauties should I send my condolences to?”
Teepee was slow in answering; but when he did, he looked at Bittersweet with such regard that her heart felt as if it had done a somersault. Softly, he asked, “Did you ever fall in love with someone who was already in love with someone else?”
Averting her eyes from his searching gaze, Bittersweet mumbled, “Maybe I have.” Then, realizing what his words implied, she gasped, “You’ve fallen in love with someone who is already committed to someone else?” To the mare’s way of thinking, that would be more painful than Teepee’s rejection of her, and she truly did feel sorry for him to have gotten himself entangled in such a predicament.
“Well, that’s how I saw the situation. You and Wigwam did spend an inordinate amount of time together; and more than once, I found you in his forelegs.”
Staring at Teepee as if he had suddenly started to spout Furbish, Bittersweet shook her head in confusion. “What have Wigwam and I got to do with your troubles-in-love?”
You are my perfect mate, Bittersweet.”
Bittersweet stood in open-mouthed perplexity, her mind spinning. “You thought I was in love with Wigwam?”
“Stupid of me– Wasn’t it?– when I’m obviously the better stallion.” Teepee smiled at the mare’s disbelief. “I tried to stay detached from the two of you because I couldn’t bear to see Wigwam with the girl I loved; and when I had the chance today to hold you in my forelegs for a change, I couldn’t help but kiss you; but then I felt like a complete heal because you were my brother’s girl. That’s why I said those horrid things to you.” He stood then, putting himself face-to-face with the mare. Once more, he extended the flower to her. “Forgive me, please?”
“Of course, I forgive you,” she smiled, accepting the return of the spicy flower. “But I still think you’re the most thick-skulled, provoking, irksome stallion I’ve ever known to make such a stupid, idiotic...”
The stallion had moved closer during this latest tirade of his beloved, and he stopped her flow of words in the most convenient manner at his disposal.
It proved very effective.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Observant readers might recall from the “Girl’s Day Out” story of November 2001 that Sugarberry’s newest published novel was entitled “Silent Are the Bells”. It has remained just a title mentioned in passing... until now, that is. Ponyland Publishing Company presents you with the first three chapters of Sugarberry’s “Silent Are the Bells”!

Silent Are the Bells
by Sugarberry (Sugrbery@aol.com)

Chapter 1
Homecoming

“Home again!”
The mare wanted to run up the steps of the stately house and fling open the door as she had so many times as a foal, but she retained her dignity and walked properly up to the courtly entrance with its pilasters and pediment and rang the doorbell. The musical notes echoing throughout the house made the mare smile; she had often angered the mature butler by ringing the bell at odd moments just to hear the sprightly sound that encompassed the sedate house.
Chewing on her lower lip as she waited for Clarence to respond to the summons, Brietta turned to look over the view behind her. The stone house faced a curving path that was bordered on both sides by peony bushes now in full bloom with lush flowers in graduated shades running from pure white to deepest red. The lawn, meticulously manicured, spread smoothly, interrupted only by the lavish flower beds that ornamented the carpet of grass. Several huge weeping willows spread their cascading branches to meet the earth, and a trio of blue spruce trees anchored the eye to their towering dominance.
So engrossed in the sight of home, Brietta did not hear the click of the opening door and was startled to hear the voice of the butler break into her thoughts.
“Clarence!” she grinned as she whirled around. “You haven’t changed a bit!”
The stiff domestic looked at her with surprise. “Miss Brietta, you weren’t expected home until tomorrow!”
“Well, I’m home today. May I come in?”
“Indeed you may, Miss Brietta.” Clarence regained his composure swiftly. “And your luggage?” he asked, peering down the steps for a sign of the numerous pieces of baggage that would certainly accompany the mare.
“They’ll be delivered later today, Clarence. I wanted to make good time, so I traveled light.” She tapped her backpack. “Everything I need is in here.”
Clarence raised an eyebrow, dropping some of his formality. “You’ve changed then.”
Brietta laughed. “Hopefully for the better, you could have added.” She glanced up the winding stairway rising up at the center of the large entry hall beyond the foyer. It was a cavernous space, running the width of the house to meet the back entrance. “Are Mother and Father home?”
“I’m sorry to say that they are not. Your father had a business appointment that will keep him away for the entire day, and your mother is off making arrangements for a dinner party in your honor tomorrow evening.”
“And Grandfather?”
“He’s at the office; he refuses to slow down even at his age.”
“Afraid that no one can do the job like he can?”
“He trusts your father explicitly; it’s the young ‘interlopers’, as he calls them, that he feels a need to keep his eye on.”
For the first time since she arrived back home, Brietta frowned. “You’re referring to Sloan and Dorian.”
“Of course.” The butler obviously did not want to get in a discussion with Brietta over the two stallions who had been hired in the family business while she was away at college. “Go on into the parlor, and I’ll have Anna get you something refreshing.”
“How about I go with you to the kitchen and give Anna a hug and a kiss?” Brietta countered.
“As you wish,” the butler sighed, but a smile lit his eyes; he and his wife had often been the only source of comfort for a growing and rebellious filly during a several year time-of-turmoil when she had fought against her parent’s authority which had fortuitously been outgrown as quickly as it had started; he was grateful that Brietta remembered the loving guidance that had always been available to her in the most trying of circumstances.
* * *
A glass of milk and a soft chocolate chip cookie or two later, Brietta found her way to the third floor bedroom that had been hers since she had asserted her independent nature by demanding that she was old enough to be granted a room as far removed from the family’s main quarters as possible. Her hoofsteps reverberated down the long hallway, this upper level of the mansion somewhat less dramatic in its furnishings and therefore uncarpeted.
Her vision was attracted to a door that stood insolently glaring at her just as in days gone by. She was captivated by it as if by some magical power and lured toward it until she stood inches from the dark, forbidding gateway.
Staring at the sturdy portal, Brietta slowly reached out a hoof to touch the tarnished knob, attempting to turn it; but the knob only rebelled against her hoof. The door was still locked as it was always locked, except for that one brief lapse so many years ago.
For a moment, the mare was inundated with memories that threatened to overwhelm her; she put both hooves against the door to steady herself; after several minutes she pushed herself away and retraced her steps back to her room.
Clarence had obviously been here before her for the front window was open and the curtains swayed gently in the warm, spring breeze. Brietta crossed the room to take in the panorama from this extended height; the spruce trees, she noted, were now taller than the house itself. The willows had always dwarfed the mansion for as far back as she could remember. She had loved to sit by the window and watch the wind play in their branches as she dreamed her dreams and made her plans. She would do that again, now that she was home.
Passing to the center of the room, Brietta observed that even though the floral pattern of her bedding was still in the huge red rose pattern that she loved, the linens were all new; her mother had taken pains to prepare a fitting haven for her-- a new creature set down amidst all that was tied into tradition and family matters. Pictures of friends and family cluttered the dresser, a painting of an imposing castle hung over the bed, and a shelf groaned under the weight of beloved tomes written by an eclectic mix of authors.
Wandering around the room, reacquainting herself with each memento, Brietta was struck by the fact that she was no longer a filly ready to grasp at any pleasant dream or sparkling bauble that presented itself. She was a mare now, ready to put her knowledge and integrity on the line by joining the law firm that her grandfather’s father had established before him. She would continue the heritage of the ponies who had gifted her with life and love. It was a dream come true.
Brushing a hoof over the silky surface of the comforter that was riotous with roses, Brietta found that she was tired... very tired. Her accelerated pace on her homeward journey along with the heavenly snack she had consumed overwhelmed her. She crawled onto the bed, closed her eyes, and fell asleep with the breeze caressing her softly curling hair.
* * *
“No! No! I want to see the bells!” the lavender foal with deep violet mane cried as she fought against the forelegs that attempted to hold her back. “Let me go!” She managed to gain several more of the steep steps before she was brusquely swept back to the level at which her grandfather stood.
“You have been told to stay away from this tower, and I expect you to obey. You are to return to your room immediately and wait there until I can talk with you.”
“I want to see the bells!” the foal reiterated. “Mommy says they make a beautiful sound!”
“Your mother has never heard the bells and neither will you!” A strong hoof took her in firm control and pulled her downward. “You are expected to obey your elders, young lady, and I will make sure that you do even if no one else seems to care.”
Fighting every step of the way, the foal was not easily deterred. Breaking the grasp that held her, she nimbly recovered a good number of the treads before the hoof once more restrained her; but it was not before she caught a glimpse of the large metal bells that hung from the top of the tower. Having seen them and verified their existence, she was more easily pacified.
“Grandfather, why don’t the bells sing anymore?” she asked as he guided her down to the landing. When the stallion did not respond, the foal stood her ground and turned to look at him. “Don’t you like the bells, Grandfather?”
“Go to your room, Brietta,” he said as he lifted her down the final treads. “Go to your room and wait for me there.”
The young filly obeyed the command, but not without a long lingering glance back at the doorway that led to the bell tower. She saw her grandfather locking the door, and she was observant enough to notice that he looked very sad. Somehow, that quieted her more than his rough handling and his gruff voice. She slipped into her room and stationed herself in front of the window, focusing on the cascading branches of the willow to wait for his lecture.
* * *
“Brietta? Brietta!”
The mare turned her head and opened her eyes from the deep sleep into which she had fallen. The voice calling her name was so familiar, yet it lacked the vibrancy she remembered. As her vision moved to the doorway of her room, she saw a thin and seasoned stallion standing there; with one motion, the mare was off the bed and hurrying to meet him.
“Grandfather! I was told you were at the office, and I didn’t expect to see you until later.” Her twinkling eyes searched his tired ones.
“It is good to see you home, Brietta.” The two stared at one another, crossing the chasm that the years had carved and then embraced in a familiar hug as the years melted away.
“It’s good to be back,” Brietta smiled as she pulled away to study her grandfather’s face. “And it’s about time I came home, by the looks of you.” She brushed a hoof across the lined and melancholy countenance before her. “Aren’t you supposed to be cutting back these days?”
“I’ve worked too long to let my legacy fall into the hooves of those young interlopers your father hired on. Wastrels, both of them.”
Brietta smiled winningly. “Come now, Grandfather. Sloan graduated with high honors; and Dorian is, I’ve heard, an exemplary lawyer. How can you doubt their capabilities?”
“Wait until you’ve seen them in operation, child,” Grandfather shook his head as he ambled to one of the chairs tucked into a sitting area of the room. “These modern stallions don’t understand a thing about accountability. All that matters to them is making a fast buck and coming across like some movie star.” He looked at his granddaughter appreciatively. “You do these old eyes good.”
Brietta moved into the chair next to her grandfather and took his hoof in hers. “Grandfather, I’m ready to take my place in the firm.”
The stallion eyed the young mare speculatively. “I expect the best from you, Brietta; your father does, too.”
“I’ll do a responsible job, Grandfather. I haven’t been away honing my skills for nothing.”
“You didn’t allow yourself to get led off-track by any ingratiating stallion?” His piercing gaze searched her heart.
“No. Who would I have met that could hold a candle to you?” she teased.
Lifting a brow, Conrad retorted, “There was a time when you thought Sloan would do very well.”
“It just goes to show that I’ve learned a lot, doesn’t it?” parried Brietta.
“We’ll see,” said Conrad with a smile that eased some of the worried wrinkles out of his face. “And now, let me show you some of the new plantings we’ve put in around the patio; I’m anxious to hear your opinion of the petunias I found for your mother.”
With that, the two ponies companionably set off to explore the gardens.
* * *
Arriving home together, Brietta’s parents were very pleasantly surprised to find their only child in the gazebo waiting for them, Conrad having withdrawn back to the house. “Brietta! My darling! It has been so long!” Her mother threw her forelegs around the mare and hugged her tightly while Brietta’s father looked on in proud contemplation. Her mother pulled back and frowned. “Why didn’t you let us know you were arriving today? We would have been here to meet you.”
“A change in scheduling got me here sooner than I’d expected, Mother. Clarence and Anna have met my every need, and Grandfather and I have had a chance to talk.” She turned to her father. “Is there still room for me in the firm?”
Aiden smiled. “There is-- if you and Sloan can come to some sort of understanding; he’s been awaiting your arrival with some trepidation.”
Laughing, Brietta hugged her father. “That’s good. It shows that his confidence is shaky, at best. And don’t worry; I won’t let my personal feelings concerning the stallion interfere with business.”
“Lena, what do you think? Has our daughter matured to the point that she can control that temper of hers?”
“We’ll find out soon enough, Aiden.” She smiled at Brietta. “Sloan and Dorian are both invited to a party your father and I are hosting in your honor tomorrow night.”
“But, Mother, I’ll surely meet them both at work tomorrow. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into a real case.”
“Whoa, girl,” her father held up a hoof to silence her. “No one expects you to be at your desk so soon; even your grandfather has allowed you a few days to readjust to your life back at Whitehall Place.”
“My desk... does it really exist, Father? I’m not dreaming, am I?”
“Not only a desk, but an office with your name on the door, Brietta.”
Her mother touched her hoof. “We’re very proud of you, Brietta; make no mistake about that. Grandfather may have been disappointed when you were born and weren’t the little colt he envisioned, but he’s mellowed over the years; and, even if he’ll not admit it openly, he’s very pleased that you decided to join the family business.”
“No one could be more pleased than I am,” grinned Brietta as she once more hugged her parents. “I feel as if my life is just beginning!”
* * *
“Your room is as you left it last, except for some updated linens. If you need anything, just let Lissy know; and she’ll take care of it.”
“The room is perfect the way it is, Mother. I’d forgotten how protected I feel here.”
“Why you chose to sleep up here all by yourself surrounded by these big empty rooms is beyond me, Brietta. You’re free to chose a cozier room on the second floor if you’d like.”
“Why would I want to abandon my room, Mother? It’s close to the bells, and someday they are going to ring for me.”
“Not as long as your grandfather has anything to say about them. He hasn’t changed his mind about them in all these years; you’re not going to be the one to convince him.”
“You never know. Maybe I am just the one.”
“I seem to remember him evicting you from the bell tower under some very strict admonitions.”
“I was dreaming of that earlier. Mother, did you ever hear the bells? You told me how beautiful they would sound, but Grandfather said you never heard them either.”
“No, I never heard them. But your father remembers them when he was young, and he said that no sweeter bells have ever rung.”
“How many years has it been, Mother? Grandmother has been gone a long time.”
“Your father is fifty now, and he was sixteen when he lost his mother... and Conrad lost his beloved wife.”
“So the bells have been silent for all those years,” Brietta mused.
“And it’s a shame, too. I’m sure that Myrna would have wanted their use continued.”
“It’s time for Grandfather to let go of the past,” said Brietta, looking out her window at the shadow of the towering peak of the bell tower where it lay outlined on the lawn.
“The bells signaled the joy of his and Myrna’s wedding day and the eventual birth of your father; but Conrad says that when his wife died, the bells would ring no more. There could be no more happiness for him.”
Brietta frowned. “Someday...”
* * *
Putting in a phone call that evening, Brietta counted the rings to five before a harried voice answered, “Yes?”
“Let me guess; that son of yours just fed the goldfish to the cat.”
“Brietta! Is that really you? Where are you?”
“I’m home, Shayla; I arrived early this afternoon.”
“But your parents said...”
“I wasn’t supposed to be here until tomorrow, but the trip didn’t take as long as I’d planned. I was in too big a hurry to get here. How is that husband of yours and that son I hear begging in the background?”
“Both are fine, Brietta; I can’t wait for you to meet Flynn; he looks just like his father.”
“I can picture your face beaming as you say that.”
Shayla laughed. “I love them both devotedly, Brietta.”
“How are you doing?”
“The doctor said that I should quit work so that I could get more rest, so Flynn and I are making the most of our time together. We were right in the middle of baking cookies when you called.”
“Is there a problem with your pregnancy?” Brietta asked anxiously.
“Nothing to worry about; the doctor has assured me that as long as I take good care of myself, the baby will be fine, too.”
“Dr. Liam would be getting up there by now, Shayla; are you sure that he’s competent?”
“You’ve been away too long, Brietta. Dr. Liam retired and moved to Pine Park several months ago; I see Dr. Finella now.”
“Finella...” Brietta spat the name. “She decided to set up practice here?”
“She proved her worth during her internship; why shouldn’t she settle in Whitehall?”
Brietta changed the subject. “If you and Flynn have no responsibilities tomorrow morning, why don’t the two of you join us for breakfast here at the house. I look forward to meeting the miniature Derry.”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude; you and your parents must have a million things to talk about.”
“When would your being here be an intrusion? The only time you weren’t here as a filly is when I was at your house or we were both at Sloan’s.”
“It’ll be great having you nearby again; I’m sure Sloan feels the same way.”
Brietta ignored that remark. “We’ll plan on seeing you for breakfast then.”
“We’ll be there.”
After hanging up the phone, Brietta walked to the window. It was nearly dark outside, but the lighting over the front door radiated a mellow glow down the steps. In Brietta’s mind, a scene from the past played out in vivid detail as she stared.
* * *
Brietta was in the company of Bram as they walked into the already crowded end-of-summer dance being held in the school gymnasium; Sloan had backed out at the last minute, telling her that he had something important to take care of that could not wait. He was preparing to move his things to Pembroke where he would be starting law school; he had just graduated from college and now had his career of choice for which to prepare; Brietta, herself just finished with her first year of college, had understood that and did not question the late cancellation.
She would have been spared the full impact of that evening if Bram had not called her. He was morose because the filly he had been dating had gone out of town. It was only to cheer him up that Brietta had suggested that since she was without a date herself, why not go to the dance together? Once the fall semester began and everyone returned to their chosen educational pursuits or buckled down to their chosen vocation, they would not be seeing much of each other. Bram quickly agreed to accompany her.
After arriving at the hall, the two had become separated as they worked their way around the crowded gym; and Brietta was left to wander by herself. She soon spotted Bram, however, on the dance floor with Trish. Brietta had to smile; Bram would not spend too much time mourning Tripta’s absence. It was nothing new; his infatuations never lasted long.
Brietta was soon invited by Vinney to join the dance, and the two were swirling across the floor when a flash of familiar steel blue caught her eye; she turned her head to verify the inference and froze in her tracks, drawing Vinney’s gaze to parallel hers. There, his forelegs around another mare, was Sloan. Brietta’s eyes flashed fire.
Never one to wait when action was called for, Brietta left Vinney and marched to the unaware couple; the mare saw her first, but knew no reason for the obviously indignant pony to be focusing such blazing attention on Sloan and herself. But the mare whispered something to her dance partner, and the stallion swung his head in Brietta’s direction.
“Brietta! Hi!”
Nothing could have fed Brietta’s vexation more than this trite acknowledgment; with an unpleasant tone, she accosted Sloan. “This was your important errand?”
Sloan was unruffled. “Brietta, I’d like you to meet Finella. Finella,” he smiled at his date, “this is Brietta, the filly who tagged after me while we were growing up; she’s kind of like my little sister.”
The venom in the look Brietta gave Finella was potent; but in the glare that she fastened onto Sloan, it was deadly. “You two-faced pretender! How dare you brush off our relationship as if it’s just some puppy love on my part? Who is this mare anyway?”
Sloan smiled patiently. “I met Finella when I was in Pembroke making living arrangements. I invited her to visit Whitehall, and here she is.” He looked at his companion with admiration.
Brietta looked at Finella as well; the mare was white, pure white; she was wearing a blue ribbon that matched her eyes. Brietta had never fully trusted any white pony; now she knew that her instincts had been right all along.
She turned her attention back to Sloan, who was gazing at Finella like an enamored mooncalf. Brietta found it infuriating. “You can have her.” She left them standing in the center of the dance floor and never looked back.
* * *
“Honey, what are you thinking about?” Brietta’s mother had come into the room to find her looking rather morose.
“He never tried to stop me, Mother.”
“Who... Oh. I see. Being home has uncovered some ghosts for you, has it?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Her mother came to her with a hug. “Don’t you worry; everything will work out; the main thing is that you’re back where you belong.”
Brietta smiled, shaking off the haunting memories. “I’m ready to step into Father and Grandfather’s law firm, Mother. There were days back in school when I thought that I’d never get this far.”
“Aiden and Conrad have both dreamed of this day since you were a foal.”
“That reminds me, Mother. Shayla and her little son are coming for breakfast tomorrow.”
“I’m glad to hear that; you and Shayla have a lot of catching up to do. And little Flynn is the cutest little guy-- looks just like his dad except with that soft, innocent charm of youth.”
“We’ve all lost that, haven’t we, Mother?” sighed Brietta, turning to gaze out the window once more. “Everything seemed so simple...” She flushed guiltily. “But that’s the past, and I’ve let that go. The future is what’s important now. Right?”
Brietta busied herself over an array of magazines on the table so that her mother could not see the moisture that had formed in her eyes. No stallion– especially one who had brushed her off the way Sloan had done– was worth even a single tear. Hadn’t she told herself that a thousand times over the years?

Chapter 2
Friendships Renewed

Brietta had spent a longer than normal time primping in preparation for the dinner party her parents were holding to celebrate her homecoming; Lissy, the housemaid, had spent valuable time in helping the mare to braid and decorate her hair-- so much so that Anna had finally stomped up the back stairs to remind the maid that her duties in regard to the party were suffering.
Throwing a dark glance at Brietta, Anna shook her head. “Life’ll not be so easy with you back home, little one.” But the “little one” was so beautiful in her ribbons and bows and with the look of expectancy on her face that Anna softened. “Lissy, I’ll expect you downstairs in ten minutes, you hear?”
“Yes’m,” Lissy responded as Anna made her departure; the maid turned a wide smile on Brietta as she returned to the job of positioning each hair ornament in exactly the right place.
“Lissy, what is Sloan like these days?”
Her eyes sparkling brightly, Lissy gave an honest answer. “He’s wonderfully handsome and very, very thoughtful.” She pinned Brietta with a sharp look. “You should make your peace with him, Brietta. Your grudge against him has gone on long enough.”
“My grudge, Lissy? That sounds so... trite. I prefer to think of it as justice.” Brietta moved to her dressing table to choose a perfume. “Flourish or Reserve?” She opened the first bottle and sniffed the scent.
Dispute would be more like it,” grimaced the precipitous Lissy to the reflection of the mare in the mirror; that opinion registered, she left to help Anna.
Her room once more to herself, Brietta grew thoughtful. Was she the same pony who had grown up along side Sloan almost as if they were from the same family? Her father and Sloan’s father, Niles, had been best friends all through their school years, and that friendship had never waned. When Aiden had become a lawyer and Niles an architect, the two had continued to collaborate on both a business and a personal level; and their wives had become close friends. Building an elegant house in the area, Niles had become a neighbor as well. It only followed that the offspring of such a woven existence would be close.
And so they had been. Brietta smiled as she remembered the games of hide-and-seek in the wide lawns and spreading willows; playing at the pond; the first day of kindergarten for Brietta when Sloan, by now a veteran student, holding her hoof to thwart her fear; reading books in silent companionship; working on homework at the kitchen table with cookies and milk readily available from Anna; cheering on the local teams; congratulating one another upon their individual graduations. She had never “tagged after him”; even with three years of age between them, they had been equals in everything.
“Brietta? May I come in?” Shayla was at the door, bringing Brietta out of her reverie. The two young mares had spent a pleasant morning together with Flynn playing at their hooves.
“Yes, indeed. Come on in, Shayla. You look lovely! Are those flowers from Derry?”
“Who else?” Shayla giggled. “It’s been ages since he brought me flowers.” She lifted her foreleg where the corsage of red roses rested.
“I’m jealous,” admitted Brietta. “No one thought to present me with such a memento.”
“Oh, but the flowers downstairs are gorgeous; your parents went all out for this dinner party.”
“They always insist on entertaining their guests in style.”
“Oh! Brietta! The guests! That’s why I’m up here; everyone is wondering where the guest of honor is!”
“All the ponies are here then?”
“Yes. And Sloan can’t keep his eyes from the stairway, Brietta; you’re torturing him.”
“I’m nearly ready,” Brietta responded, turning back to her dressing table. “You go back down and assure the company that I haven’t slipped out the back door.”
“Okay. But don’t be too long.”
Once more Brietta looked over the scent bottles in front of her; suddenly she made up her mind. “Reserve it is.”
* * *
The carpeted hallway of the second floor silenced Brietta’s hoofsteps which worked to her advantage as she moved to the top of the last sweep of stairs; it gave her a moment to view the guests without being seen herself. The arrogant Niles was dominating the conversation between her parents and the others except that Sloan stood off to the side in a spot that commandeered the full sweep of the curving steps which rose dramatically from the center of the hall which was larger than most rooms. His attention at the time was focused on his father’s words, and Brietta realized just what an impressive figure the younger stallion presented.
Having made it a point to avoid any confrontations with Sloan since that fateful evening of the dance when Finella had burst on the scene, Brietta had rarely seen him for several years, timing her rare visits home from college and then law school to coincide with the stallion’s absence from Whitehall. Those lost years had matured the pony and heightened the aura of dependability and honorableness that had always marked him as a trustworthy friend.
Well, almost always, bitterly thought Brietta, remembering again how he had hurt her. But seeing him standing there, his saffron yellow mane neatly combed across his steel blue body, reawakened a longing that had been buried for too long. Brietta felt her resolve to hold him in abeyance falter.
In that moment, Sloan turned his gaze to the head of the steps, and his eyes locked on Brietta’s. Regardless of the distance between them, Brietta could see that no matter what had come between them, he still regarded her as beautiful. She allowed herself a reticent smile.
An assured voice drew Sloan’s attention away, however, and Brietta realized to whom that voice belonged– Finella. Her smile disappeared, and she made her descent to the main floor without the measured poise that she had intended.
To his credit, Sloan broke away from Finella to meet his foalhood friend at the foot of the stairs; Brietta allowed him to take her hoof in his. “Brietta, I’m glad you’re home.”
“It’s very nice to be back,” Brietta smiled politely. “Hello, Finella.” There was no way she was going to refer to her as “Dr. Finella”.
“You’re looking well.”
“Dear, dear Brietta,” Sloan’s father came to Brietta with a ready hug. “All grown up and prettier than ever!”
“Thank you, Niles. Noreen, your husband still knows how to make a mare blush.”
“My dear, you do look stunning! When you get those ponies in court, you’ll dazzle them!”
Grandfather spoke up dryly. “We are assuming that she has the knowledge to dazzle them with her expertise... regardless of her looks.”
“Without a doubt, she will be a smashing success!” Niles declared with authority. “Sloan can help her over any rough spots while she’s learning the ropes.”
“It will be my pleasure,” Sloan verified, his eyes twinkling.
“Conrad and I plan to keep a close eye on her until she’s comfortable with things at the office,” Aiden responded, and Brietta flashed him a thankful smile.
Shayla came forward, pulling her husband with her. “Hi, Brietta,” the stallion grinned. “Good to see you.”
“I hear that your business is doing well, and I’ve seen with my own eyes what a darling little colt you have. Flynn is an absolute angel,” Brietta greeted him.
“Your sure you saw my son?” Derry joked. “He’s usually a little terror.”
“He was on his best behavior this morning,” Shayla revealed. “I think he likes Brietta.”
“That’s easy enough to do,” Sloan said with a look at Brietta that sent shivers down her spine.
“Dinner is served,” Lena said, taking her cue from Clarence who waited by the dining room door. “Clarence will show you to your places.”
Brietta took advantage of the shuffle of ponies to whisper to Shayla, “Why didn’t you warn me that Sloan was Finella’s escort?” Brietta, in all honesty with herself, had dared to hope that Sloan would have been ready now to rekindle the camaraderie they had once shared; but Finella’s presence put that fire out before it had a chance to flame.
Shayla did not bat an eye. “They’re always together at social functions; it doesn’t mean a thing.”
“It doesn’t?” Brietta responded bitterly. “Maybe not to anyone else, but it does to me.”
Feeling a bit unsettled, Brietta made her way to the table, lost in some depressing thoughts that carried her miles away from the dining room setting until Clarence touched her foreleg and guided her to her place. Only then did Brietta notice an unfamiliar stallion waiting next to her chair. A smile broke through her dreary deliberations like a diamond finding the light.
“You must be Dorian!” She held out a forehoof to him which the stallion accepted with alacrity.
“I’ve been waiting to meet you, Brie.” He held her hoof and returned her smile, presenting her with a nosegay of fragrant flowers. His dark blue eyes twinkled at her so merrily that she did not have the heart to reprimand him for using an abbreviated form of her name– something that had irked her since she was a foal and that she normally allowed from no one. Instead, she looked on him with a benevolent twinkle of her own.
Their meeting had become the center of attention; and Brietta blushed to find that all the ponies in the room were looking at her and Dorian, some with amusement, others with disapproval, and one at least with envy. She glanced at Dorian as he helped her with her chair, and found that he was happily unaware of any tension in the room.
“I bribed your mother to let me sit next to you,” he winked. “I figure that since I’m the only one with no previous acquaintance of you, I should be allowed the opportunity to get to know you better.”
“And what size bribe did it take?” asked Brietta as she picked up her napkin.
Seeing that Lena was occupied with the conversation at her end of the table, Dorian admitted the cost. “I had to set the table; that’s why I couldn’t greet you sooner.”
Brietta looked at him sharply. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Yes, I’m serious. And it was worth it.” He flashed her an enticing smile. “Do you approve of my work?” He swung his hoof to take in the formal place-settings before them.
“It looks perfect; you’re obviously a stallion of many talents.”
“And I look forward to showing you more of them.”
Brietta looked long at the stallion as he made himself comfortable and spoke some words to Grandfather who was on his right. Dorian was light grey with the darkest blue eyes she had ever seen-- so blue that they were nearly black. His violet hair hung long. His bow tie, she noted, was a wild pattern that picked up the color of his mane. Her attention was torn away by the abrupt voice of Niles, sitting at her side.
“What do you think of the old town now that you’ve had a chance to taste the offerings of Pembroke?”
“I honestly haven’t been further than this house since I got back. I’ll have to withhold my answer until I’ve seen the changes that occurred since I was last home.”
“Ahh. So you aren’t going to blindly commit yourself to an opinion based on sentimental memories from the past?”
“You know that this house holds a wealth of wonderful memories and that there is no place else I’d rather be; but as to the town itself, I’ve heard that it has been expanding quite unexpectedly.”
Derry spoke up from across the table. “Do you remember the old movie theater where we saw all the best flicks? It’s gone now with a five-story apartment building in its place.”
“Oh, Brietta! The new theater on the edge of town has three screens! Can you imagine? We never had a choice when we were growing up. Now Flynn can take his pick.”
“The library has added a new wing that has doubled its space,” Aiden added.
“And the mall,” Noreen cooed. “We have more variety for shopping now than Capital City. Well, nearly.”
“The city’s growth is pulling in a lot of professional ponies, like Finella,” Sloan observed. “Those of us who came back because of our roots will have some competition.”
“Dorian, you’re relatively new to Whitehall; what do you think of it?”
“It’s a great place; it has all the businesses that a pony could need plus it has super relaxation spots and reasonably-priced apartments that have all the comforts of home. Not only that, but the planning commission makes sure that the growth of the city follows certain guidelines to guarantee that the town will always be a good place to live. I’d recommend it to anyone.”
“A town can grow too fast,” Conrad commented, then settled back to see if anyone would contradict him.
“Not if it’s done, as Dorian stated, under the guidance of a planning commission who looks ahead to see potential problems before they start and takes the necessary steps to correct them. Whitehall is known for its leadership in city planning.”
“I enjoy the improvements,” Lena agreed, “but I’m not sure that I approve of the out-lying land being taken over by new and bigger shopping centers and business sections. This house used to be a country home; now the residential sections of the city are creeping up on us.”
“But by the same token,” Niles reminded her, “you have better utility services and a shorter walk to any of the businesses that you need on a daily basis.”
“Harumph!” Conrad scowled. “Some day a little pony won’t be able to walk on green grass anywhere!”
The conversation came to a standstill as Clarence and Anna served the food; the talk renewed itself among smaller groupings of the diners around the table; Brietta took time to study the faces of the friends and family around her while Niles debated with Aiden, and Dorian assured Conrad that Whitehall would never be buried under acres of concrete. Her perusal of the guests ended with those directly across the table from her, Sloan and Finella.
The doctor was whispering her comments to Sloan who was focusing his entire attention to catch her words; his only response was an occasional nod of the head or a brief smile, and Brietta was free to watch him openly until he sensed her steady gaze and looked up at her directly. Brietta immediately shifted her attention to Dorian who had himself lost Conrad to something Derry had said.
“Brie, this house must have seemed like a castle to you when you were a foal. I still feel like I’m visiting royalty whenever I’m here,” Dorian stated.
“I’m afraid that I never really appreciated the magnificence of it until I was away at law school,” Brietta admitted.
“Surely you must have noticed that the homes of your friends were small by comparison,” he teased.
Brietta cast a glance at Shayla. “We were happy wherever we ended up; it didn’t matter whose house we met at.”
“I would have been annoyingly proud if I had been raised here. Your ancestors were the founding ponies of this town, after all.”
“Not the only ones; there was quite a settlement of ponies that pooled their resources and talents to put Whitehall on the map.”
“But you can’t deny that this house was called Whitehall Place before there ever was a community to exist. That says a lot.”
Conrad came back to the discussion. “My ancestors were some of those ponies who made sure that a local government was set up to guarantee that everyone’s needs would be met. This house was built in part to provide a source of work for some of the ponies who were having a hard time making a go of it. The house became a symbol of what could be accomplished with teamwork and common goals.”
“I rest my case,” grinned Dorian.
The rest of the meal went smoothly with Brietta keeping a careful eye on Sloan and Finella without appearing to be doing so; Dorian remained attentive, and the conversation flowed on until the party retired to the main room to enjoy dessert in a less formal setting. Brietta and Shayla relieved Anna of her serving chores and proceeded to supply generous helpings of Anna’s warm peach cobbler to one and all.
One of the rooms on the spacious main floor was reserved for dancing this evening, and Brietta now saw that a string quartet was setting up near the patio doors.
“Father, no one told me that you were indulging my favorite pastime!”
“A welcome home party for you without dancing would be unthinkable, Brietta. It was unnecessary to mention it.”
“You are such a dear!” Brietta hugged her father and mother in turn.
“Save the first dance for me,” her father ordered. “Dorian, you have my permission to dance with my wife.”
Given a renewed spirit in view of the dance, Brietta mingled gaily with the guests and was even able to strike up a light-hearted conversation with Sloan while Shayla and Finella strolled through the dancing hall to admire the gleaming wooden floor and the wainscoted walls. Brietta and Sloan had danced together innumerable times in that room from the time Sloan had guided Brietta’s first awkward steps; it was a welcome release for Brietta to concentrate on the good times for a change. When her father called her to begin the first dance, Brietta was in such good humor that she gave Sloan a brief hug as she left him to the approaching Finella.
Once the dancing started, Brietta could be found out on the floor for the duration. The dance with her father was followed by a command performance with her grandfather; Niles was not to be left out; and, as Dr. Finella had restricted Shayla’s activity to that of a wall flower, Derry was permitted to have a whirl with the newly returned lawyer. By then, even Brietta consented to a momentary rest.
As Derry and Brietta returned to Shayla where she sat in company with Grandfather, Dorian joined the group with a tray of drinks. “Refreshments are served,” he intoned in Clarence’s voice. “And I would like to take this opportunity to claim a dance with you, Miss Brie.”
The mare sipped her soda and acquiesced. For some reason, she liked the sound of her truncated name from this stallion’s lips. “The next one is yours.” Setting the glass down on the table, she offered him her hoof; and the stallion led her to the center of the room. As the strains of the next song began, he put his foreleg around her and led her in the dance.
The two ponies moved as one across the smooth floor, and Brietta found herself comparing Dorian’s style with Sloan’s and grudgingly admitted to herself that Dorian had a certain polish that Sloan lacked. She was so intensely concentrating on the fluidness of the steps that it was not until the music ended that she realized that no one had joined them on the floor. They had danced alone.
The ponies around the edge of the room applauded their appreciation for a fine performance, and Dorian was slow in releasing his hold on the mare. He guided her to her parents and turned her over to her father’s care. “She’s an excellent dancer, sir.”
“The two of you were perfect together,” Lena smiled. “It was good to see Brietta enjoying herself so much.” She looked favorably at Dorian.
As the strains of another number began, they were interrupted by Sloan. “Brietta.” He offered her his hoof, and she automatically accepted as she had done so many times in the past. For the length of time that the music played, she did not allow herself to think of anything except these moments with Sloan. No words were spoken; no words were needed. The music and the motion said it all.
However, when the instruments were silent, Finella’s voice broke the enchantment. She had been dancing with Dorian, and the two couples ended up near one another. “Sloan, dear, let’s sit the next one out!” She retrieved her escort, and they both went toward the side table where refreshments waited.
“If looks could kill...” Dorian said at Brietta’s side so unexpectedly that she jumped; he was watching her with an amused look.
“I wouldn’t go quite that far, honestly,” she grimaced. Then, seeing Shayla and Derry coming their way, Brietta abandoned Dorian and went to meet them.
“We’ve got to say goodnight,” Shayla grimaced. “Dr. Finella insists that I get to bed at a reasonable hour, and that means I’ve got to get home now.”
“You do look a little tired; I hope you didn’t overdo it.”
“I’ll make sure that she stays quiet tomorrow,” Derry promised. “And it’s great to know that you’ll be around on a permanent basis again, Brietta; we’ve missed you.”
“Thanks, Derry,” Brietta said as she accepted his hug. “I’ll look forward to many good times together. Goodnight, Shayla.”
“I’m going to turn in, too,” Grandfather said from behind Brietta. “These old hooves aren’t up to dancing like they used to be.”
“I wish I could have seen you and Grandmother gliding around the room; but yet I can nearly picture it at that– I can see you dancing... and I can hear the bells.”
“Quiet, Brietta!” Grandfather admonished her, and his demeanor visibly saddened. “I don’t want to be reminded...”
“I’m sorry, Grandfather.” Brietta hugged and kissed him. “I love you.”
The stallion managed a faint smile. “I love you, too, Brietta.” He turned and left the room.
Brietta stood alone. The other ponies were congregated to the side of the room while the musicians took a break. In her isolation, the mare pondered the silent bells; the old longing to hear them chiming from the tower was as strong today as when she was a little foal. Just as her grandfather used to have them rung on happy occasions, Brietta would like to have been able to share in that tradition. Now, however, the bells were off limits; even her homecoming was not sufficiently noteworthy to convince Grandfather to renew the custom.
“A jangle for your thoughts,” Sloan broke in upon her reflections; Dorian was there, too.
“They aren’t worth that much,” she smiled. “I was just wishing we could hear the bells.”
“What bells?” Dorian asked.
“The ones in the bell tower.”
“There are really bells in there?”
“What did you think it was?”
“Just an oddity on the house; I never gave it much thought.”
Sloan eyed Brietta. “If only you could get it out of your thoughts; your grandfather has made it perfectly clear that he wants nothing to do with those bells.”
“Why?” asked Dorian.
“They signified all the good things in his life, like his marriage to Grandmother and the birth of Father. But when Grandmother died, he couldn’t stand to hear the bells ring out anymore; he says they will never ring again.”
“But Brietta has always harbored the hope that some day, Conrad would relent and allow the old tradition to continue,” disclosed Sloan.
“You’ve got my curiosity up; I’d like to hear those bells, too,” admitted Dorian. “Maybe you can tell me more about them during this dance,” he added to Brietta as the quartet took up their instruments once again. Brietta gratefully accepted; Sloan had never understood her penchant for the bells.
The music was slow and the two ponies could talk without interruption. Brietta explained to Dorian how as a foal she had tried to glean a view of the bells, but had been stopped by her grandfather’s intervention. Over the years, she had begged and pleaded, prodded and poked, to convince her father and mother to persuade Grandfather that it was senseless to ignore the bells; after all, she had argued, hadn’t the bells been made for the purpose of announcing events of merit?
Every milestone of her life had refueled Brietta’s desire to hear the bells, starting with her first day of school and continuing until her graduation, but never once had Grandfather budged in his refusal to allow the bells to be a part of Whitehall Place’s celebrations.
“The night of my sweet-sixteen birthday party, I was determined that Grandfather would see my point of view,” Brietta grinned at Dorian, the spark in her eyes giving her a spirited look that quite besotted the stallion. “I had snuck in three of my friends– Bram, Dwaine, and Colin– before the evening got under way; they were going to pick the lock on the tower door and see to it that the bells rang in honor of my sixteenth birthday.”
“I’m guessing that you failed?”
“You guessed right,” Brietta giggled. “Sloan wouldn’t be a party to our plans, but he did consent to playing the part of lookout. Unfortunately, he was no match for Clarence who asked him to help rearrange some furniture, so he left his post.”
“And Conrad caught you in the act?”
“It was Shayla’s fault, actually. She got cold hooves and wanted out, so she went down the stairs from the third floor, only to run into Grandfather coming down the hall from his bedroom. Shayla’s not good at dissembling; one look at her face, and Grandfather knew something was up. He came up the stairs and found the four of us huddled around the bell tower door.”
“Not good,” Dorian surmised with a grin.
“He was quite calm about the whole thing and simply told us to get back downstairs, which we were quick to enact. It wasn’t until the next morning that I was called before his presence in the library and faced my doom.”
“Which was?”
“He told me that as I was incapable of entertaining my guests in the manner that was expected of me, then I’d be denied that privilege for the next month. Not only could I not have friends over to visit me, I couldn’t even stop in at anyone else’s house during that month either. Needless to say, I was dismayed.”
“But you survived.”
“Yes, I did. But my teachers at school were ready to tear their manes’ out because I interrupted class so much with all there was to discuss with everyone without being able to see them outside of class time. They were as glad to see the month come to an end as I was.”
“So the Whitehall Place heir isn’t such a little angel after all?” queried Dorian.
It suddenly dawned on Brietta that the music was no longer playing although she and Dorian were still dancing– sort of– at the edge of the room, lost in the story-telling and lulled by the motion that had transfixed them, holding their attention one on the other. She blushed and pulled away from Dorian, feeling as if all eyes were on them; but when she glanced to where the others had congregated, she was grateful to find that none of them seemed aware of anything out of the ordinary, so caught up were they in a discussion of their own.
When Dorian and Brietta joined them, they found that Noreen was busily planning her own party for later in the summer– a garden party to show off the myriad flowers and bushes that decorated her well-kept lawns. Sloan guided Brietta onto the dance floor when the musicians began another song, admitting that he found the chatter of his mother too tedious; and Dorian courteously extended his expertise to Finella.
When that dance ended, Niles and Noreen decided to end their evening; farewells were said, with Aiden and Lena walking their friends to the door.
With the guests having thinned out, the musicians packed up their instruments; and the house regained its quiet composure. The contemporary glass doors which led to the patio were open to admit the refreshing springtime breezes. An odd, deep sound also pulsed through the room in company with the air currents.
“What’s that noise?” asked Dorian, looking a bit disconcerted.
Finella came to his rescue. “It’s frogs... hundreds of them.”
“You’re kidding!”
“No, really,” Brietta laughed. “There’s a pond beyond the willow tree, and the frogs are celebrating springtime.”
Dorian, still not convinced, looked at Sloan. “Are these two pulling my leg?”
“No, city boy. The sound you hear is definitely made by frogs. Brietta, Shayla, and I have caught enough of them in the past to know.”
Brietta giggled. “It’s kind of fun, if you’d like...”
“No, thanks!” Finella grimaced, stepping back quickly.
“I’m game,” Dorian said enthusiastically. “Do we need any special equipment?”
“Good eyes and quick hooves,” Brietta proclaimed.
“I’m covered then. Let’s go!”
“Sloan, you’re not going out there to chase those slimy creatures!” Finella wailed as the stallion was on the verge of joining the hunting party. She took his hoof and pulled him away from the doorway while Dorian grinned at Brietta.
“It’s just you and me.”
Brietta tossed her head, giving Sloan and Finella a withering glance. “Sissies!” she hissed and led Dorian out the door and across the smooth patio stones.
Beyond the scope of the outside lighting, the two ponies were lost in the blackness until their eyes adjusted to the wan moonlight; Brietta took Dorian’s hoof in hers. “Follow me,” she whispered. “I know just the place.” With slow, quiet steps, they moved to the bank of the silvery pool, reflecting the ghostly glow of the moon.
Their approach was stealthy, but the amphibians were aware of intruders. Those near the spit of land where Dorian and Brietta stood ceased their croaking to listen intently; several plops were heard as the frog bodies hit the water. Brietta indicated to Dorian to keep still; and as the two ponies stood, barely breathing, one, then another, and soon all of the frogs were singing again. At this close proximity, the sound was deafening.
The coarse animals were everywhere, but Brietta made no move to catch one; she had been away from this music too long, and she wanted to enjoy it. Dorian seemed to sense her mood, and stayed unmoving beside her, listening to the amphibian choir.
A sudden louder splash across the pond created instant silence, and Brietta pointed to a spot where a furry brown raccoon was fetching out his catch. For an instant, his black masked face stared across the water at the ponies, his bright eyes reflecting the moonlight, after which he turned and lumbered away, disappearing into the bushes that clustered in that area.
“We’d better get back,” Brietta said, becoming conscious of the closeness of the stallion in this isolated darkness.
“Your mother will think I let you fall in,” agreed Dorian, his voice rather husky; Brietta could feel his gaze on her.
“Be careful where you step,” she warned. “It’s easy to lose track of where...” She screamed as her hoof began to skid down the slippery bank; in an instant, Dorian’s forelegs were around her, pulling her to safety.
Brietta’s heart was racing; and she leaned against Dorian, welcoming his support. “Thanks for saving me from a cold dunking,” she said, “although I probably could have caught you a frog easily enough down there.”
“I rather like what I caught... better than a frog,” Dorian replied, pulling her close, his lips brushing hers.
A light beam suddenly hit them. “Brietta, is that you?” came Sloan’s voice. “Are you okay?”
The two ponies pulled away from one another and Brietta responded, “I’m fine; we both are.” She hoped that neither of the stallions heard the tremor in her voice; but when Sloan came up to them with the flashlight, she could see the smoldering anger in his eyes.
“Don’t worry, Sloan; I’m here to protect the lady,” asserted Dorian. Brietta could imagine the grin on his face.
“Finella and I were coming to check on your hunting expedition,” revealed Sloan evenly, his eyes on Brietta’s face. “We heard a scream.”
By this time, Finella, following the light from the lantern, reached the trio. “Is everyone all right?”
“I lost my balance near the water; Dorian kept me from falling,” Brietta answered. “The evening is getting chilly; we’d better get back to the house.”
The evening air was indeed much cooler than the sun-warmed temperatures of midday; but, in actuality, Brietta wanted to escape the accusing expression on Sloan’s face that warned her that even though he had cut his ties with her, he had no patience for any other stallion who might try to take his place.

Chapter 3
Choices

When Brietta trailed into the breakfast nook off the kitchen the next morning after her welcome home dinner, she found that her father and grandfather were already gone to the office. Her mother, however, seemed to be waiting for Brietta’s appearance.
“You look well rested, dear.”
Brietta looked at the clock. “I should be, Mother. It’s ten o’clock.”
“You have no commitments today; the sleep was good for you.”
“Yes, Mother,” the mare grinned.
“So, did you enjoy the evening?” Lena questioned, settling in as if for a good chat.
“It was wonderful. Thank you for thinking of treating me to such a special coming home party.”
“Your father and I are so happy to have you back and your grandfather, too, of course.”
“And I’m happy to be here.”
“What did you think of Dorian?”
Brietta laughed. “He’s cute,” she answered without any serious commitment.
Lena frowned. “You’re right; he’s not handsome like Sloan.”
“You’re fishing, Mother.”
“Can you blame me? You and Sloan were always such good friends; I guess I still had hopes...”
“Sloan has Finella; I don’t think any of us are naive enough to expect him or me to suddenly slip into the old compatibility we used to share.”
“I just thought...”
“I’m back home to practice law, Mother, not to snare a husband... not yet, anyway,” she softened her response.
Lena sighed. “Of course, you’ll be busy once your father and Conrad get you caught up in your work. Just don’t let yourself get so submerged in it that you ignore your personal life.”
“Not at all. I’m looking forward to any number of good times.” Brietta patted her mother’s hoof soothingly, then grew sober. “I just wish Grandfather wouldn’t have thought it necessary to bring an outsider into the firm when I was so close to getting my law degree.”
“Whitehall is growing faster than you realize, Brietta. Your father agreed that Dorian was needed even with your impending arrival.”
“And Sloan recommended him?”
“Yes. They’d been good friends during law school, but went their separate ways upon graduation. When talk turned to hiring a new associate, Sloan informed your father and Conrad that he knew someone who would be interested; they’d kept in touch, you see.”
“Where did Dorian practice law before he came here?”
“A small firm in Dunklin, I believe... or was it Denton?”
“And he’s worked out well?”
“Your father is satisfied; your grandfather, on the other hoof, finds him to be a bit too self-assured for his liking, but can find no fault with his results.”
“Yes. I felt he was going overboard in trying to impress me last evening.”
“Well, you are the bosses’ daughter; he might feel intimidated by your entrance into the firm.”
Brietta smiled to herself. Intimidated was the last thing she would accuse Dorian of being. She would not admit it to her mother now, but she had found it difficult to get Dorian’s appealing face out of her mind when she crawled into bed last night.
Their late breakfast out of the way, Brietta and her mother made their way into town. Lena had called her husband to warn him of an anticipated stop at the law office and lunch had been arranged. Along the way, Lena gave a rundown on the residents that lived in several of the new homes they passed.
Brietta was amazed at the construction that had occurred at the edge of town. “We’re closer to the city without having moved; it’s coming to us!” she exclaimed as they passed a new restaurant, a computer shop, and an eclectic assortment of houses.
They strolled past the expanded library and the latest apartment building and went into an antique store. “You’ll be surprised to see who owns this place,” Lena had grinned at the entrance; and Brietta was flabbergasted when they had entered and Bram came across the crowded showroom to meet her, his forelegs outstretched to give her a welcoming hug.
“Bram!” Brietta cried. “What are you doing here?”
The stallion winked at Lena over Brietta’s shoulder. “I own this place; where else would I be?”
Brietta looked at him doubtfully. “You wouldn’t know the real thing from an imitation.”
“Now there’s where you’re wrong!” He drew her to a display of paperweights and proceeded to give her the age and history of each. “Satisfied with my credentials now, Brietta?” he grinned.
“You are a wonder, Bram!”
“And how is Keri?” Lena asked.
“Sweet as ever,” Bram replied. “She’s gone over to Durand to an estate sale.”
“When will I get to meet this wife of yours?” asked Brietta.
“Soon, I hope. How about dinner at our house some night?”
“Shouldn’t you ask Keri for her approval first?” laughed Brietta.
“We’ve already discussed it; I was going to call you with the invitation.”
“Then I readily accept; but I’ll be tied up for a couple of weeks while I’m settling in, so can I take a rain check?”
“No problem; it will give you time to consider some lucky stallion to bring with you.”
“That would be no one, if that’s okay,” she said peevishly.
“Well, if you change your mind...”
Brietta changed the subject instead. “That paperweight– the glass dome with a seashell inside– can I afford it?” She had seen several price tags that had made even her genteel skin crawl.
“You like it? It’s yours,” Bram lifted it from the shelf and headed for the counter.
“I wasn’t asking for a give-away,” Brietta argued.
“It’s the least I can do for such an old friend,” Bram chuckled and busily wrapped the paperweight carefully and bagged it. “Welcome home, Brietta,” he said as he handed her the parcel.
Brietta sighed dramatically and said in a feeble, cracking voice, “I guess I should be grateful that you didn’t give me a cane... considering my age and all.” She glanced at a display of wooden walking sticks, then smiled flippantly. “You’re a dear; thanks, Bram.”
Strolling further along the store fronts, Brietta was surprised to see that a number of businesses had changed ownership since her departure from Whitehall. Others, once with windows filled with clothes, novelties, or jewelry, were now starkly converted to office space. Brietta’s eyes sparkled when the historic building that housed her father’s law offices came into sight.
“Mother, it’s never looked more wonderful to me than now, knowing that I’ll be a functioning part of it,” Brietta sighed, her eyes feasting on the solid, stone structure with long, narrow windows, the edifice surrounded by trim, green grass and colorful flowerbeds. A modest sign proclaimed the name: Manning and Associates.
Aiden, obviously awaiting their arrival, came to the two mares as soon as they stepped into the office, hugging each in turn. “Come Brietta, I want you to see your niche.” He led her through the outer room to the hallway that fed a suite of offices. Her grandfather came out of his chamber to share the moment.
Brietta clung to her parents as she was directed to the office door that was etched with her name. “Monday morning, Brietta, you will be officially in business.” Aiden fairly beamed.
Brietta Manning,” she read slowly, her eyes shining. She reverently opened the door and stepped into her office to face the imposing desk with the leather chair and matching side chairs. Wooden file cabinets stood unobtrusively along one wall, while a floor-to-ceiling bookcase ran the length of the wall behind the desk. A cushioned seat along the windowed wall cut the severity of the room.
Slipping into the chair behind the desk, Brietta gaily extended an invitation to her family. “Please be seated,” she said, with a wave of her hoof. “How may I help you today... problems with employment contracts, unfair competition, or possibly a merger?”
Conrad shook his head from where he stood at the back of the room. “You’ll scare your clients away, girl!”
Aiden, however, looked on his daughter approvingly. “You’re perfect as you are, and you belong right there, Brietta; our office is complete.”
At that moment, Colly, the pale green mare who kept the office running smoothly, made her presence known. “Conrad, your one o’clock appointment is here.” She cast a withering glance at Brietta behind the desk. “Nice to see you back, Brietta.” Her words were civil but the tone of her voice was cool; before Brietta could reply, the mare briskly turned and left. Conrad quickly followed her.
Brietta smiled to herself. She and Colly had been in the same grade at school, and Colly had always seemed to resent Brietta’s ability to score well in any subject; Colly also gave the impression that she thought it unfair of Brietta to garner Sloan’s attention for so many years while the two fillies were in high school; if anyone had been happy to see the split occur between Brietta and Sloan, it had been Colly. Not that it had advanced her suit in Sloan’s direction, however, Brietta though bitterly. No one could counter Finella’s influence on that stallion.
“Ready for lunch, darling?” Lena asked her husband. “Brietta and I ate breakfast late, but I think we’ll be able to face a salad at the hotel while you and I continue to enlighten our daughter of more of the changes she’ll have to adjust to in our growing town.”
“Can you tear yourself out of that chair, Brietta?” Aiden smiled. “You’ll be spending plenty of time here soon enough.”
“Not soon enough for me, Father. I can’t wait to put my knowledge to work in the real world.” She sighed but stood up. “I’m going to be very happy here.”
As the three ponies were leaving the offices behind on their way to Grady’s Hotel, they met Sloan and Dorian who were themselves just returning from a working lunch. Brietta found herself thinking by the bright light of daytime that both of the stallions, although so different in coloring, were both equally handsome. But it was Dorian who made it a point to gather her hoof in his as the two parties met.
“I dreamed of nothing but you and frogs all night,” he said in a somber tone. “Fortunately, it was you I got to kiss.” He grinned at her pink blush and turned his attention to Lena, although he retained Brietta’s hoof. “And thank you, beautiful lady, for a supplying such a wonderful evening.”
“I’m glad you were able to share it with us, Dorian, and you, too, Sloan. We’ve just made sure that Brietta is satisfied with her office, and she seems to have no objections to the furnishings.” Lena turned to Brietta. “Dorian seemed to think you’d prefer a more feminine atmosphere over the sedate and rather masculine decorating that permeates the rest of the offices.”
Loosening herself from Dorian’s hold, Brietta frowned at him. “You expect something pink and cozy, do you, Dorian? I don’t think a majority of our clients would feel much confidence in a setting like that.”
“I beg your pardon!” Dorian stepped back in mock disgrace. “I’ll refrain from offering any decorating advice in the future. Although now that I’ve met you, I can see that your cool professionalism will be perfectly at home in that solemn den.”
“By that, am I to infer that you think I’m too unemotional for one of my gender?”
Dorian’s eyes raked across Brietta, all too obviously remembering that moment by the lake when he had pulled her into his forelegs to prevent her from tumbling into the water. “Be assured... that thought never crossed my mind.”
Realizing that she had not scored well on that assay, Brietta turned her attention to Sloan who had stayed on the perimeter of the street-side gathering. “Finella was no worse for wear from her near encounter with nature last night, I hope.” That mare had taken a violent dislike to a brown bat that had swooped close to her as they had made their way back from the lake to the house. “She’s fortunate that you were there to protect her.” Brietta had not missed the mare’s immediate collapse into Sloan’s protective custody at the time; interestingly, she did not bother to compare it with her own rescue by Dorian.
Sloan looked as if he would have liked to make a snide remark– Brietta could well imagine what it would be after his coming upon herself and Dorian in what could have looked like a compromising moment at the lakeside last night– but he swallowed the words and replied simply, “Finella’s fine. And as you appear to be on your way to lunch,” his glance took in Brietta and her parents, “I think Dorian and I better let you resume your progress. We’ll see you on Monday, Brietta.” He looked at her as he said those words as if he was not sure if that was a good thing or not.
Dorian, however, jumped on the bandwagon. “Yes, Brie, it will be great having you in our ranks; some new insight will be invaluable, especially as it will be coming from a feminine perspective.” Brietta glowered at him; and Aiden cleared his throat, expressing quite clearly that it was time for them to move on.
They had not yet reached the hotel– Brietta and her mother were chattering about some of the pieces they had seen in Bram’s antique shop– when Aiden slowed his steps; Brietta looked at him in some concern, but Lena was smiling as if expecting something significant to happen. Seeing that look on her mother’s face, Brietta took stock of her surroundings and found that they were now standing outside one of Whitehall’s oldest establishments– Raffery’s. Like the Manning’s, the Raffery family was among the first of the settlers in the area and had instituted a niche for themselves in the new environment by continuing a family tradition they had carried with them from the more heavily settled eastern environs– they had opened a jewelry store to provide the finest grade of precious metals and stones to the local families. It was a heritage that the current family members continued to take much pride in, offering only quality merchandise that would become family heirlooms in their stead.
“Why are we stopping here?” queried Brietta cautiously. Both of her parents now appeared to be very pleased with themselves.
“We were remiss in not getting you a gift when you received your law degree and passed the bar exam,” Aiden stated. “Your mother thought that a present of the caliber that we had in mind should have some input from the receiver.”
“We’re here for you to decide on a set of jewelry,” Lena continued. “Your father and I have had Rafe set aside several choices that we have pre-approved; it’s up to you to make the final decision for yourself.” She beamed her pleasure.
“I’m overwhelmed,” said Brietta, placing a hoof against her heart. “I expected nothing other than a position with the firm; nothing can beat that.”
Her mother scoffed. “You can’t wear a job description, Brietta. The jewels we have in mind will brighten many an occasion in your future.” She prodded her daughter to go into the store while Aiden held the door. Brietta entered the clean, crisp interior to be met by Rafe himself.
“Miss Brietta! I’ve been looking forward to welcoming you back to Whitehall. And all grown-up and more beautiful than ever, I see!” He eyed the mare in open approval.
“Thank you, Mr. Raffery. It is indeed a pleasure to be home again. And your establishment looks even more prosperous than I had remembered.” Her hoof waved to encompass the cases protecting handsomely exhibited pieces of costly elegance.
“Only the finest jewels adorn our displays,” Rafe bragged, his blue eyes glittering like sapphires. He looked questioningly at Aiden and Lena.
“We’d like Brietta to examine the pieces that we discussed,” Aiden relayed to the store proprietor.
“Ah! It is as I thought. It is time for the princess to receive her adornments.” Rafe effected a pompous bow as he directed the stunned Brietta to a seat in a private parlor before a velvet covered table dominated by a gold-trimmed mirror. Never had she been treated with so much pageantry.
An attendant materialized at Rafe’s side with a tray of jewelry that sent flashes of colorful light playing through the air. Aiden and Lena, seated to Brietta’s right, exchanged a smug smile while Brietta’s mouth fell open as Rafe picked up the first piece, a amethyst necklace, and placed it around Brietta’s lavender neck.
“They’re magnificent!” Brietta breathed, catching her parents gaze in the mirror. “But...”
“No buts,” Aiden reprimanded. “You’ve only one duty while here, and that’s to examine each of the sets in question and then decide which of the three you’ll choose.”
“What could be more beautiful than this?” softly asked Brietta, touching her hoof to the necklace as Rafe added the matching earrings and bracelet to complete the ensemble.
The attendant had reappeared with another tray, this time sporting an array of pearls, each piece vying for supremacy with the added sparkle of diamond accents. As Rafe draped the necklace in place of the previous one, Brietta caught her breath for the translucence of the pearls was enchanting. She realized that the decision as to which of the jewels impressed her the most was going to be a difficult one.
“You aren’t making this easy,” Brietta said to her parents. “You’ve chosen too well.”
“Let’s see what you think of the final offering,” Aiden gloated.
Rafe took the tray from the attendant and set it before Brietta, and she gasped with delight. The final choice was diamonds, a treasure of sparkling gems that lay against their royal blue background like so many stars in the night sky. The play of light off the facets was dazzling to the eye, and Brietta was stunned at the magnificence. Her eyes wide, she watched in wonder as Rafe hooked first the necklace, then the coordinating ear rings and bracelet. She moved slightly to send rays of color flashing like bursting fireworks.
“These are too grand,” she breathed, unable to resist running a possessive hoof over the glittering masterpiece that encircled her neck. “They’re out of this world.”
“They’re perfect for you,” Lena asserted. “Both your father and I prefer the diamonds; we just wanted to verify your thoughts on the matter, and we can see in your eyes that these are the ones for you.” She directed her next remark at Rafe. “The diamonds, please,” and stood to end the matter right there.
Aiden followed suit, directing Rafe to have the set delivered to Whitehall Place that afternoon, and left Brietta with nothing to do but sit in paralyzed disbelief as Rafe now removed the gems from her and placed them in an attractive case that nestled the diamonds in compact perfection.
“You’ve chosen well, Miss Brietta,” Rafe said, cradling the case reverently in his hooves.
Brietta, at a loss for words, could only smile weakly at him and follow her parents.
* * *
“That was entirely uncalled for,” Brietta argued as the three of them settled into a table reserved for them at Grady’s. “How many opportunities will I have to wear such splendor? And even if I get the chance, I’ll be afraid of losing them or something!”
Lena tossed her head. “You’re young yet and will have many engagements that will require a certain flair that these diamonds will be sure to grant you.”
“Besides,” added Aiden, “you are our only child, and your needs have been minimal. This is our way of letting you know how much you mean to us.” He patted her hoof. “We are very proud of you, my dear.”
Before Brietta could get too weepy, two stallions of Aiden’s years approached their table.
“Aiden, Lena, we couldn’t help but notice that your lovely daughter is home once again.” They smiled on Brietta with as much fatherly pride as Aiden did.
“Brietta, you remember Connor and Ryan, I’m sure,” Aiden prompted his daughter.
“Of course I do,” Brietta smiled charmingly. “And I’m delighted to see you again.” She held out her hoof in turn to each of the gentleponies. “From what I’ve seen around town, your real estate business must be humming these days.”
“It’s a good time for Whitehall,” Ryan agreed. “Ponies are beginning to realize what a treasure our community has to offer to those who want a stable yet progressive community in which to raise their families.”
“Yet Grandfather questions how much growth will occur before we lose those very qualities that so attract others,” Brietta offered.
“Growth is the lifeblood of a town like ours,” replied Connor. “We can’t sit on our laurels of the past and expect to remain a vibrant community. Look at Freemont; it’s growing by leaps and bounds, yet monitored in such a way as to prevent the heart of the local society from being compromised.”
“Speaking of Freemont...” interjected Ryan. “They’re having an interesting controversy over there concerning Ravenridge.”
“That’s the big house that sits on a peak above the city, isn’t it?” asked Brietta, remembering a trip to Freemont when she was younger.
“Yes, a rambling old mansion. It’s up for sale, and some of the townsponies are concerned that a business venture will take over the property.”
“For what use?”
“For whatever they see profitable,” Connor shrugged.
“That house is a landmark,” argued Aiden. “If it falls into the wrong hooves, it will be at risk. Freemont should purchase the land as a historical site.”
“That’s what’s evoking the controversy,” explained Ryan. “This is the first opportunity the city has had to buy the property as it had remained in the Raven family until recently. The cost of maintaining the property, however, could be detrimental to the town’s resources.”
“And what will a developer do with it?” asked Lena defensively. “They’ll have no respect for the history of the place or the legacy of the family that lived there. What will they do with the land around the house, and what changes will they effect within the house itself? It was built to house a family; and if it isn’t practical for that purpose any longer, then it should be preserved for all to enjoy as a museum like Whitehall’s Garvin House.” Lena ended, nodding her head for final emphasis.
“Your ancestors would be proud of you, Lena,” smiled Ryan. “But the fact remains that a house such as Ravenridge would eat-up more revenue than it could muster, therefore becoming a detriment to the city. However, if the right investor gets his hooves on it, it can become an economic asset to the community, generating income, jobs, and tax monies.”
“The key there is finding the right investor,” sparred Aiden. “No matter what some pony says up front, once he gains control of the property, he can do whatever he wants with it. There is no guarantee that Ravenridge will retain that which makes it special to Freemont.”
“Well, from what I hear, the interested parties involved are willing to maintain the historical heritage of Ravenridge to the best of their ability while converting it into a rather elegant multi-purpose lodging and country club of sorts.”
Lena huffed. “That’s the end of Ravenridge, then.”
The arrival of the Manning’s lunch ended the confrontation at that point, and Lena and Brietta breathed a sigh of relief to be rid of the unsettling presence of Ryan and Connor. Aiden began talking soothingly of his foalhood days at Whitehall Place, and soon the optimistic mood of all the ponies had been restored; and Brietta could allow herself to dream of appearing in public for the first time wearing her expensive and exquisite diamonds. It confounded her that every scenario she envisioned involved two stallions vying for her attention: one with saffron yellow mane and steel blue body, the other whose light grey body was accented with long violet hair. Interestingly enough, she could not decide which one to favor.
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Our next issue will be sent August 1, 2003.
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