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My Little Pony Monthly Issue 77 (August 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 77
August 2003
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Index

1. Letters to the Editor
2. Contest!
3. Survey!
4. From Whence We Came (by Clever Clover)
5. The Flute (by Tabby)
6. XTREME! Mission: Possible (by Barnacle)
7. Anchor and Sails (by Sugarberry)
8. Marshmallow (by Clever Clover)
9. The Forfeit (by Tabby)
10. Temptation (by Clever Clover)
11. Silent are the Bells Chapters 4-6 (by Sugarberry)
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Letters to the Editor

OpalStarre@aol.com:
Yay! It’s so nice to see them growing again :) Great work!
Rissa Of Royal Meadows
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Contest!

Congratulations to our eleven winners!

Annie Baby Dibbles (Amsofct@aol.com)
BJ (maxnmiria@hotmail.com)
C. A. Loewen (cloewen@superpa.net)
Gaby (Mikey120850@aol.com)
Jaye (eightiestoyboy@yahoo.ca)
Jenn (FairySelene@yahoo.com)
Lil’ Whiskers (rosakala@yahoo.com)
Megan (mlplover-2000@yahoo.com)
Moon Lightning (kangamanda@juno.com)
Nicholley@aol.com
Violet Star Shine (violet-star-shine@yahoo.com)

I accepted two answers in regards to Fizzy’s unicorn magic, since I had forgotten to be more specific in my question. Fizzy could either make bubbles or “wink”, though technically all the unicorns could wink and their magic power was something aside from that. ^.^ Come on, now try your hooves at the next question!

What is the name of the Flutter Pony from the Slumber Party Gift Set?

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!

This was a lovely turnout for the survey question on who is your rarest pony!

*garej* (garej@mylittlepony.fsnet.co.uk) says...
I don’t really know. I have a few rares, such as Satin n Lace, all the Mountain Boys, Tux n Tails, the Big Brothers (5 with hats), Greek Peachy, FF Peachy, No Country Peachy and finally Baby TAF Dancing Butterflies. I have a few rares, but to be honest, I don’t know which is the rarest.

Annie Baby Dibbles (amsofct@aol.com) says...
well i just traded some of my good ponies but i have to say my rarest ones are baby sandcastle and baby shovels.. i know they are not that great but i LOVE them!! I also have a MOC sandigger that i got from clipper.. hmm i have two mail order luckies.. 2 chuck e cheeses but they arent rare.. i guess i better go find some rare ones!

Moon Lightning (kangamanda@juno.com) says...
Who is the Rarest?
Well that would be my Mimic or my Euro surprise Twins mommy one :S I donno...

Jaye (eightiestoyboy@yahoo.ca) says...
I think my rarest pony is Mimic. I got her on my birthday when she was still in stores. It was part of my ongoing quest to get all the adult ponies featured in the TV show, and I was just delighted to find her! :-) I’m not as familiar with what is and is not rare as I should be, though, so perhaps I have other rare stuff as well. ;-)

Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net) says...
As far as my “rare” ponies go...
My Baby Princess Sparkle is rare to me- I don’t see too many of her...
I have the Goldilocks pony...
I also have the brown prototype pony that was put out before the actual MLPs were ever made...
However, my “rarest” and most treasured pony would have to be my MIB Baby Glory. She was my favorite pony growing up and finding her still in the box was more than I could have hoped for!

Lil’ Whiskers (rosakala@yahoo.com) says...
Hmm, I’ve got a couple of rares. I have Mimic, Crumpet and Baby Crumpet, Dabble, Scribbles, and Baby Cupcake and Lil’ Sweetcake. Dabble, Scribbles and the two baby sisters are part of my original collection so I’m rather proud of them. ;)

Jenn (fairyselene@yahoo.com) says...
Goldilocks

It was great hearing from all of you!! Now, everyone, feel free to answer the next survey question!

Which pony in your collection has the most sentimental value for you and why?

The URL is:

http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm
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From Whence We Came
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)

In the Crystal Desert, Clever Clover, Belle Star, and Coyote navigated a narrow cliff to a recently discovered kiva that they had been mapping. It took more than an hour to reach the kiva from the base camp below the cliff. After the climb to the main pueblo complex, they had to crawl through a narrow crevice and then the narrow ledge, where they were now, and then climb the cliff using a series of rough-cut footholds made by the ancient cliff-dwelling ponies of the Crystal Desert. Despite her tendency for clumsiness, Belle Star had managed to make the trip to the kiva and back twice already. If all went well, today they would finish the mapping of the structure. The three archaeologists paused at the base of the final ascent. In the desert heat, it was easy to over-exert one’s self, and it was important to take many breaks.
“You know, I’m going to miss this place when we’re done with it,” said Coyote. “I mean, there’s something unreal about it. Like it’s in another world.”
“That’s the whole idea. But I’ve gotta admit, this is the most impressive kiva I’ve ever seen.”
“And how many kivas have you seen, Clever Clover? I mean, isn’t this your first trip to the Crystal Desert?”
“Yeah, but Belle Star and I visited a couple of sites on the way.”
“Uh huh. And my mom took me on a trip when I was a little girl and we saw a really big kiva! Hm, I can’t remember what she called it. But it was in the middle of a biiiiig city in the shadow of a mountain.”
“What!?” Coyote was shocked. “That’s Pueblo Amarillo! I’ve dreamed of going there my whole life! But it’s off limits to visitors. How did your mom get you in? She isn’t a pot-hunter, is she?”
“Oh no, she isn’t a hunter. She’s an archaeologist.”
“Really? Did she work at Pueblo Amarillo?”
“No. She was on vacation. I think grandpa helped arrange the trip.”
“Oh yeah, the head of the Pony Sea Patrol. Do you think you could put in a good word with your grandpa for me?”
“Uh, okay. I’ll see what I can do.”
Clever Clover glanced at his pocket watch. “Okay, I guess it’s time to get moving.”
The three ponies began their final assent to the kiva. Clever Clover went first, followed by Belle Star and finally Coyote. They were connected by a safety line in case one of them fell. At the top of the cliff was a box of tools and supplies the archaeologists had been using to record the kiva. They recovered their gear and climbed down through the square opening into the kiva, a circular chamber cut into the top of the mesa. The only illumination was from the entry in the center of the roof. The ponies went about their work, measuring, photographing, mapping, and recording every detail of the ancient structure.
Coyote was measuring a discolored spot on the floor of the kiva that had caught his eye. He took out his trowel and slid the blade into a narrow crack in the floor. “Hey guys, check this out!”
“What is it, Coyote?” asked Clever Clover.
“I’m not sure.” Coyote leaned on the trowel and a segment of the floor lifted up. “What the…!?”
Clever Clover came over to see what his co-worker had discovered. Coyote lifted the floor panel away to expose an opening into another chamber. “This is different,” said Clever Clover. “Hey, Belle Star, come over here.”
“What is it…oh!”
Coyote shined his flashlight down the hole. “So, Clever Clover, what do you think we should do?”
“I guess one of us at least should go down there and see what’s there so we can tell Kiva as much as possible. Coyote, it’s your find; you should be the first one to take the plunge. Belle Star, go get some rope. I’ll take some pictures. Coyote, take some measurements of the opening and the panel.”
“Right!” the ponies replied in unison.
Belle Star returned shortly with the rope, one end of which was then tied to the entry ladder and the other was lowered through the mysterious opening. Clever Clover handed Coyote the camera. “All right, get a few pictures and measurements of whatever is down there. If it turns out to be a large chamber or a complex of chambers, don’t waste your time trying to map the whole thing; there’ll be time for that later.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know the drill.” Coyote began to climb down into the darkness. Clever Clover and Belle Star watched from above, but before long he was out of sight. Clever Clover shone a light down the hole but there was no sign of Coyote.
“Hey, Coyote!” Clever Clover called down the hole. There was no response. “Coyote? Are you alright?”
“Where did he go?” asked Belle Star.
“I don’t know.”
Then Coyote’s weak voice come up from the hole. “Hey guys! I made it down, but I twisted my ankle and dropped my flashlight. Could one of you come down and give me a hoof?”
“I’ll be right down,” said Clever Clover. The purple pony carefully climbed down the rope. Belle Star shone a light down the hole, but there was still no sign of Coyote. “Coyote, where are you?”
“I’m down at the bottom of a dark hole.” Coyote’s voice seemed to be growing more distant.
When Clever Clover reached the bottom of the hole, he got out his flashlight and looked around. He was standing in the center of a square room. There were two doorways on opposite sides of the room. Coyote, and his flashlight, were nowhere to be seen. “Coyote!” Clever Clover called out, but there was no response. There were no tracks in the sand to indicate where Coyote might have gone. The purple pony shone his light through one of the doors. Beyond was another room much like the first, but without any other exit. Clever Clover investigated the other door. This one led to a larger room with three other doors, two on one wall and one on another. He proceeded cautiously into the third chamber. There was still no sign of any tracks, but in one corner of the room was an unusual mound of sand. Clever Clover walked over to the mound of sand. Something was out of place here. He reached down, grabbed a lock of red-orange hair, and gave it a solid yank.
Coyote shot from the mound with a howl of pain. “What’d you do that for?” he whined.
“I keep telling you that these practical jokes are going to get you into trouble some day.”
“Aw, come on, I’m just having a little fun.”
“Is everything all right down there?” Belle Star’s voice echoed down from above.
“Everything’s fine,” Clever Clover replied. “Coyote was just playing one of his pranks. Why don’t you come down here? We might as well all have a look around.” The princely pony turned to Coyote. “By the way, how did you get into the next room without leaving any tracks?”
“That is an ancient secret passed down to me from my ancestors. Ancestors who may very well have lived in these very ruins.”
Clever Clover shook his head. “Whatever.”
Belle Star joined them in the chamber. “I’m glad to see you’re all right, Coyote. I was very worried.”
“Sorry to harass you like that. I was just having a little fun.”
“Well, playtime’s over. Let’s have a look around this place.” The three ponies began to explore the complex of underground chambers. As they progressed deeper into the unknown, Clever Clover counted his paces and sketched a rough map to keep from getting lost. Coyote carried the camera to photograph any interesting features they might come across. Belle Star made written descriptions of the complex.
“Have you noticed how the chambers seem more crude the farther we go?” Belle Star commented.
Clever Clover nodded. “Yeah, I wonder what it could mean?”
“Well, according to my ancestors, life originated in the underworld and eventually migrated to the surface,” said Coyote. “The kiva is supposed to symbolize that journey. This could just be an expanded representation.”
“So you think we’ll end up in the underworld if we keep going?”
“That sounds scary.”
“Caves were seen as the natural entrances to the underworld. There is probably a cave complex somewhere under the mesa. In fact, theses chambers could have been carved out of the natural caves.”
“That makes sense.” Clever Clover checked his watch. “It’s getting late. We should probably turn back.”
“But I was really hoping to see where this all leads.”
“Would you rather make the climb back to camp in the dark? We can always come back tomorrow. In fact, it might be best if we brought our tents up to the kiva and just camped out up there. It’s going to take a long time to explore this entire complex. Of course, the final decision will be up to Kiva.”
“Right. I guess you’re right. Let’s head back.”
* * *
The trio of archaeologist ponies made their way back through the underground complex to the kiva and down the cliff, along the ledge, through the crevice, and finally down the ledges to the base of the mesa. They reached the camp just after sunset.
“Where have you three been?” demanded Kiva, the head archaeologist. “You should have finished that kiva by noon.”
“Well, boss, we got a little side-tracked,” said Coyote.
Belle Star nodded. “Uh huh. We almost ended up in the underworld.”
“What are you talking about? Clever Clover, can you tell me what happened?”
“We found a complex of chambers under the kiva. We took some time to do a preliminary examination, but they were too expansive to fully explore. We were hoping we could establish a secondary camp up by the kiva to expedite the exploration.”
Kiva shook his head. “I’m sorry, but that will have to wait until next year. Our budget for this season is almost gone, and we may not be able to finish as much as I had planned already.”
“We have to wait a whole year?” whined Coyote. “This could be the greatest archaeological discovery of the century!”
“I know that. It’s all the more reason to wait until we have the time and resources to do it right. But, I guess I could see if the university would be willing to grant me some extra funding. Maybe we could get back to it as soon as this fall. Can I assume that the three of you would like to be in on it when we do get the funding?”
“Yes sir!” they responded in unison.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Flute
by Tabby (TabbyMLP@aol.com)

“Here are the manuscripts you wanted,” Sapphire said, carelessly tossing the pages onto Macarius’ desk.
“It’s about time,” the blue stallion muttered, leafing through them. “By the way, Sapphire–“ Sapphire, heading for the door, turned back around and looked at him. “–I was displeased with your behavior this afternoon.”
“My behavior?” Sapphire echoed incredulously. “What are you talking about?”
“You were flirting with Beauregard,” Macarius said bluntly.
“Wha–? I was not flirting with him!” Sapphire said vehemently. “And even if I was, I don’t see what concern it is of yours!”
“Anything that affects operations here concerns me,” Macarius said, his gaze pinning Sapphire’s. “And you took an inordinately long amount of time to conclude business with him.”
“I was instilling customer confidence, but of course you wouldn’t know anything about that!” Sapphire snapped. “I was asking him about his family... he’s married, you know.”
“Well, just see that you don’t waste any unnecessary time in the future,” Macarius terminated the conversation, turning back to the pages.
Sapphire left his office in a huff. That stallion was insufferable! “What a jerk,” she muttered as she stalked down the hallway. Macarius had to find fault with everything she did! Why couldn’t he have stayed back in Forest Brook when this new merged branch of their families’ publishing firms opened in Dream Valley?
It was time for her shift to end, so Sapphire headed towards the main doors, glad to be able to get away from her arch nemesis’ overbearing presence. He’d always been like that, ever since the first time they had met. The incident still seemed like just yesterday to Sapphire; the memory was still crystal clear...
* * *
Twelve-year-old Sapphire was skipping down the school hallway toward the auditorium, where a very special tryout was being held that afternoon. She paused to feel the bag at her side to ensure that her treasured flute was still there. Being reassured, she continued on her way.
“Hey, Sapphire.” A colt stepped out in front of her. “I gotta show you something.”
Sapphire snuck her nose up in the air as she strolled past him. She’d had enough of this colt and his buddies since yesterday. “I can’t think what you’d have to show me that would be of any interest,” she said primly.
“Yeah, well, I was thinking about what you said yesterday to me and the guys,” young Macarius acknowledged. “And I decided you were right.”
“Really?” Sapphire’s eyes lit-up; it was so great when another pony saw it her way! “So you admit that your science project is really lame?”
“Yeah, and we’ve decided to do something else. I thought you’d like to come and see it.”
The little blow-up of yesterday had started when Sapphire had walked by the table where Macarius, Heath, and Renny were working on their project for the science fair, and she had quite innocently commented that their volcano looked more like a heap of lumpy mashed potatoes than anything else. The colts had, for some reason, taken offense to her statement (she had just been trying to offer advice! Some ponies!) and a major exchange of heated words followed. In the end, Heath had called her a stupid know-it-all, Renny a clueless airhead, and Macarius an ignorant interfering girl. Sapphire, before stomping off in an angry huff, declared that a volcano was a totally unoriginal idea, anyway, and they would so not win any prizes for it. And that was how matters stood when Macarius approached Sapphire in the hall.
“Well...” Sapphire hesitated. “If it doesn’t take too long.” She looked up at the clock on the wall; it was still ten minutes before tryouts.
“It’ll just take a minute,” Macarius assured her, taking her hoof and literally dragging her down a side passage.
“Where is it?” Sapphire demanded.
“In here.” Macarius came to a stop in front of a closed door.
“In there?” Sapphire said suspiciously. “But that’s just an old storage room, isn’t it?”
“We got permission... come on, look.” He swung the door open for her.
Sapphire peered in without actually entering the room. “I don’t see anything.”
Muttering something like “dumb girls,” Macarius shoved past her and flipped the light switch.
“I still don’t see it,” Sapphire protested, stepping over the threshold and eyeing all the shelves lining the walls. “Where–“
Suddenly, the door slammed shut. Someone was out in the hallway, messing with the lock. Two voices were laughing. “Hah! This’ll show ya, Sapphire,” Heath’s unmistakable voice said.
“Yeah! Nobody makes fun of our volcano and gets away with it!” Renny chortled. “Catch ya later, airhead!”
Before Macarius had time to react to the mistake that had been made, the clopping of hooves on the hallway floor and raucous laughter signified that his two buddies had already made good their escape. “Hey! Hey, I’m still in here!” he shouted, pounding on the door, but in vain.
Sapphire whirled on him with fire in her eyes. “You... you... worm,” she hissed. “You did this all on purpose! You jerk!”
Macarius sighed and leaned into the wall. “At least if you hadn’t been so stupid I wouldn’t be in here, too.”
“But I have to get out!” Sapphire pounded on the door for help and shouted for someone to help, but to no avail. “The band tryouts are in just a little while! I can’t miss that!”
“Maybe you should have thought of that before making fun of our volcano,” Macarius smirked.
“I was just making a helpful suggestion, you dork!” Sapphire shouted. “You guys take things way too personally!”
“Anyway, you’re just missing one band practice. I don’t see what the big deal is, really,” Macarius shrugged.
What the big deal is?” Sapphire echoed. “Well, for your information, this is a tryout session! A play producer is going to be here and he’s going to pick the most talented students to perform the music for a play he’s putting on in Wild Oaks!”
“Well, he’d never pick you, that’s for sure, so I don’t see why you’re so hysterical,” Macarius said in a bored tone.
Not pick me?” Sapphire shrieked. “I’m a great flutist! I know I’d have a chance... if I could just get there!”
“It’s not like I can do anything... even if I wanted to,” Macarius said.
“And if I got in that play, it could be just the beginning for me,” Sapphire ranted on. “Who knows what options I’d have open for me after that! And if I don’t get out of here in time, then...”
“Scream all you want; nobody’s gonna hear you down here.”
Sapphire ignored his warning and for the next hour or so proceeded to scream and shout and pound and cry. It was all futile. Eventually Sapphire heard in the distance various footfalls and chatter. Her heart sunk. Were those all the band ponies getting out of the tryout? She screamed louder. After what seemed an eternity, the one pony that confirmed Sapphire’s worst fears finally came. The music teacher.
“Is someone trapped in there? I don’t have the key for this door; I’ll have to go get the janitor. Hang tight.”
“Oh, Sapphire, it’s you! We wondered where you were. How did you–”
“Miss Astilbe, the tryout,” Sapphire gasped out. “Is it–“
”I’m sorry,” Miss Astilbe said, looking at her sympathetically. “It’s over. I’m afraid it’s too late for you.”
“But, it wasn’t my fault!” Sapphire pleaded. “He– that jerk– he locked me in! Isn’t there anything I can do– there must be a way! I have to have a chance! Please!”
Miss Astilbe looked truly apologetic. “If I could do anything for you, Sapphire, I would; but the choices have already been made. I really am sorry. But there are always other opportunities–“
Sapphire blindly turned away and faced Macarius with tear-filled eyes. There was never going to be another opportunity like this. “I hate you,” she whispered in a blind rage.
Macarius remained unmoved, his composure never wavering through his entire ordeal with Sapphire. “Tough luck, Sapph,” he waved carelessly as he wandered down the hallway. Sapphire turned and ran down the hallway in the opposite direction before she completely broke down. Her family was right; the Monks were a terrible bunch of ponies.
And what was possibly the most painful part of it all was that Macarius’ group’s project won first place at the science fair the next week.
* * *
Coming out of her reverie, Sapphire found herself staring out the glass doors at a late summer thunderstorm. The sky was black, thunder boomed, lightning flashed, rain poured down, and the wind was lashing mercilessly. Not really relishing the idea of walking home in a storm like that, Sapphire sighed and made her way to the employee’s lounge where she could wait until it had blown over.
She had just helped herself to a cookie from the tray and sat down with a magazine to flip through when the room was cast into darkness. “Oh great, a power outage,” Sapphire grumbled, impatiently waiting for the lights to come back on. They didn’t. Sighing, the stumbled out of the room and into the hallway, groping her way towards the front desk where she might find an emergency flashlight.
Hugging the wall, Sapphire had only gone a few feet before bumping into a small table and sending a vase of flowers crashing to the ground. She blindly picked her way around the mess and winced as she stepped in the sharp edge of a piece of the shattered vase. This really wasn’t turning out to be her day. Too bad everyone else had gone home already, and she was the only one here unless Ma–
“Oof!” Suddenly Sapphire bumped into something much taller than a table, but fortunately much softer as well.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the unknown pony apologized. “Are you okay?” He held her away from him and tried to get a feel for her face.
“Macarius?” Sapphire croaked. Wow, the day kept getting better and better. What could beat bumping, quite literally, into one’s nemesis in a dark hallway?
“Oh, it’s you.” Macarius abruptly thrust her away. “I thought you’d have gone home by now.”
“I was just waiting out the storm,” Sapphire snapped, resenting the lowering tone he had switched to when he had realized it was her and not some other mare.
“I was just going to the main desk,” Macarius continued calmly, “to attempt to locate a flashlight. You may come with me or continue to stumble around in the dark.”
“Jerk,” Sapphire hissed, but nonetheless trailed behind him... as well as she could trail someone she could barely make out in the darkness.
Upon reaching the desk, Sapphire listened to him opening drawers and rustling through them. She smirked with pleasure as she head a can of pens falls over onto the floor. “Real graceful, Macarius,” she said mockingly.
“Well, at least I found something,” Macarius countered, and suddenly a low beam was coming out of the flashlight he had unearthed.
“Great, so now we can see. A lot of good that does to calm the storm down,” Sapphire said snappishly, forgetting that she, too, had set out in search of the device.
“No, but with it we can find... ah-hah!” Macarius got his hooves on a small portable radio situated on the desk. “This should be on battery power... let’s see.” He turned the dial and a staticky transmission came out.
“...Dream Valley and the surrounding area is under a severe thunderstorm warning until eight o’ clock P.M... residents are advised to stay indoors and seek appropriate cover... be prepared for heavy rain, hail, and strong winds... the power company has reported a massive power outage throughout much of the city; please be patient while the problem is resolved... as always, stay tuned to WPNY for the latest weather developments... repeat, Dream Valley and the–“
Sapphire sighed and turned away. “Well, I guess we’re stuck here for awhile then.”
Macarius ignored her. “It looks like the wind’s getting worse,” he commented, looking out the window.
“I’m not afraid or anything, you know,” Sapphire retorted, feeling the need to retaliate even from a simple statement.
“I didn’t think you would be. Or at least that you’d admit it to me if you were,” Macarius smirked. “We can either wait it out here or in the basement. Do you want to flirt with danger or play it safe?”
Sapphire didn’t want to appear a sissy, but as a particularly strong gust of wind rocked the building she wavered. Nevertheless... “It’ll be over soon,” she predicted, putting on a brave front. “No need to hide in the corner like a...” Suddenly a tremendous burst of lightning lit up the outside and shook the ground. Shrieking, Sapphire jumped at the shock and found herself in Macarius’ forelegs, who looked like he was trying hard not to laugh.
Sapphire glared at him and backed away. “I’m going to the basement,” she said, mustering as much dignity as possible. “At least then I’m away from you.” Sniffing, she stalked off.
“Sure. Just don’t get lost,” Macarius called after her in a snide tone.
“I know my way around– oof!”
“Oh well, I guess I’ll have to go with you. After all, I wouldn’t want all the Fairfaxes after my blood if anything happened to their precious Sapphire. Why, it might open up the feud all over again,” Macarius said in a bored tone, stepping past her and leading the way with his flashlight. Sapphire remained silent, and just glowered at him behind his back.
They made their way down into the basement of the plant in which all excess materials– paper, ink, and the like– were stored on shelves lining the walls.
Sapphire perched on a large cardboard box in the corner, tapping her hoof impatiently. Macarius leaned against the wall opposite her, looking bored. Neither of them spoke for a long while.
“Do you still play the flute?” Macarius’ question was so unexpected and irrelevant to the matters at hoof that Sapphire was caught off guard.
“What?” she said.
“The flute. You know, a musical instrument. You played it once.”
“Oh,” Sapphire said. “No, I haven’t played that for ages.”
“Oh.” Macarius lapsed into silence again.
Sapphire laughed bitterly. “This is a lot like that day back in sixth grade, isn’t it?”
“You’re not locked in,” Macarius said matter-of-factly.
“I might as well be. It’s not like I can go outside.”
“You know, I didn’t think it was really going to mean that much to you when we locked you in the storage room that time.”
“You never did stop to think about the consequences of your actions,” she glared at him.
“It didn’t seem like that big of a deal.”
Not that big of a deal!” Sapphire cried out. “That tryout was my lifeblood for months! I practiced harder than I ever had before in my life. I was so counting on getting a part in playing music for that play. I knew I could do it. Then I didn’t even have a chance.” Her voice was rising steadily. “You killed a dream that day, you know! And you don’t even care! Then or now!” She squeezed her eyes shut but some tears trickled down her cheek anyway. “I thought, if I made it through that tryout, I’d have my ticket to stardom. But thanks to you– thanks to you–“
”Why did you stop?” he asked abruptly.
“Stop what?”
“Playing the flute.”
“Some memories are just too painful to face again, I guess.”
“I hadn’t thought you’d let something like that deter you.”
“Yeah, well, I guess I’m not as strong as you thought I was.”
“Yeah.” Macarius peered up the stairwell. “I think the storm might have passed. I’ll go check.” So saying, he excused himself from the room.
Sapphire scowled after him. Why had he brought up that incident, anyway? It was obvious that he still wasn’t sorry about it. He must have done it just to resurrect painful memories for her. He was always going to be the same arrogant uncaring Macarius.
Even when he held the door open for her when it was deemed safe to go home, Sapphire didn’t say a word.
* * *
It was a few days later that Sapphire let herself into her office at the beginning of the day and found a neatly wrapped box sitting on her desk. Curiously, Sapphire picked it up. The package was long and slim in shape, but there was no card on the outside. Who would have left a present for her? Carefully she untied the silver ribbon and lifted the lid. She gasped at what was inside. It was a beautifully crafted silver flute.
Sapphire shook her head in wonderment. Why would anyone leave a present for her, let alone that it should turn out to be this particular musical instrument? No one here in Dream Valley would have known about her old hobby from her younger days... no one except Macarius. And it couldn’t have been him.
She picked up the flute gently and tried it out for sound. Though she hadn’t played it since sixth grade, her memories of how it worked soon came back to her. She played a simple but lovely melody before noticing there was a small card in the bottom of the box. She picked it up but it was simply signed, “An Admirer.”
Sapphire stepped across the room and opened the door, peering out into the hallway with the flute still in her hooves. Macarius was at the end of the hallway, talking with Silverdust. Upon seeing her gaze resting on him, he looked at her coolly and then turned his attention back to Silverdust.
Sapphire backed into her office and closed the door slowly, her attention centered on the lovely flute. If not Macarius, then who?
Sapphire didn’t know what to think.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
XTREME!
Mission: Possible
by Barnacle (raptor@nematodemail.com)

After their last competition, the Extreme Ponies, along with the rest of the ESL, found themselves on the road to their next destination. This time, however, they were not on their way to another competition, but instead back to North Vancashtierville, where the headquarters for the ESL were being established. After experiencing a profit from the games, the corporation that founded and owned the entire ESL now saw fit to invest in a new complex from which to run things. An entirely new set of buildings had been constructed in record time, and the various departments that had previously been scattered in various locations were now all moving into this one central facility.
Since it would be nearly an entire week before the next ESL competition, everyone was diverted to North Vancashtierville for a few days while Mr. Yanus sorted things out there. Though it wasn’t home to any of the athletes, the city still offered a chance to relax and a few nights in hotel rooms instead of in bunk beds tucked into the small spaces of their coaches.
As the western sky was just beginning to take on a reddish hue, the Extreme Team’s coach was pulling into the new parking garage facility across the street from the ESL Headquarters. In a flurry of activity, its occupants disembarked.
“Dude!” Jet cried as he bounded out of the door and into the garage. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do first, but just so long as I don’t have a camera stuck in my face, I’ll be happy!”
From the top of the stairs, Mogul added, “Yeah, that schedule was nonstop. At least we get a little R-and-R now. Here, you forgot this.” Mogul tossed Jet his duffle bag, but the hyperactive pony wasn’t watching and caught it right in his gut. Mogul just chuckled as Jet collapsed in a heap on the pavement.
“What are you gonna do now that we have a little free time?” Mogul asked Luge as she joined them outside.
“I don’t care, as long as I can spend at least one night in a real bed without you snoring in the bunk right above me, “ Luge replied.
“Even if it is just a hotel room,” Bungee added.
“What are you talking about?” Mogul asked. “I don’t snore.”
Cliff joined all the others outside just in time to join their chorus, “Yes you do!”
“No I don’t,” Mogul replied vehemently.
Noticing that their driver, a young pony about the same age as them, was climbing down from the cab, Mogul engaged him in the debate. “Hey Keefe, you’ve driven for us at night; do I snore?”
“Yeap,” Keefe said matter-of-factly as he locked the door.
“What!?”
The first time I drove for you guys, I thought someone was using a chainsaw in the back.”
Mogul, though proven wrong, wasn’t going to back down just yet. “Well, I bet the rest of you guys snore just as loud.”
“Sorry,” Keefe replied. “You’re the only one. I gotta run. See ya’ll later.”
“See you around, and thanks,” Cliff said as Keefe walked off. Turning his attention back to the group, he said, “Come on, ponies, let’s get our gear and see if we can find this hotel before it gets dark.”
As they began to walk away, Mogul was still muttering to no one in particular “Snore? I don’t snore. I bet they’re the ones that snore.”
“Just drop it already!” Luge exclaimed. “I don’t care if you snore or not, I just want to go to bed!”
“Before you do, you might want to hear what I have to tell you.”
Everyone stopped short and stared at the stranger who just stepped out in front of them from behind one of the other trucks in the garage.
“Who’s this?” Mogul asked.
“Shard,” Cliff said as an introduction and greeting, both with equal malice.
“At least you still remember me,” the pony said with a tip of his hat.
The others had heard of Shard and how he had told Cliff about the trap on the first course they ever ran with the ESL, but only Cliff and Luge had ever met him before. Any descriptions failed to describe Shard. In person, he exuded a dark sort of menace that was almost tangible. Cliff took a step forward while all the others stayed back, not uttering a word.
“So what do you want this time?” Cliff asked. “What kind of game are you playing? You told us about that first trap, but when you never showed up again, we started seeing conspiracies everywhere.”
“Good,” Shard replied. “Now you know what’s it like. If I had told you everything I know, you never would have realized just how serious this whole thing is.”
“And just how serious is the X-Crew cheating?”
Shard tipped his hat so that his eyes were just covered in shadow and said, “The X-Crew aren’t the ones you should be worried about.”
“Than who should we be worried about?” Cliff asked.
“Yanus.”
Luge finally spoke up, “Are you saying-?”
“Exactly,” Shard nodded. “Yanus is the one who’s had the tracks rigged and then told only the X-Crew about it.”
At that point everyone suddenly broke out.
“No way, Yanus is a jerk but he wouldn’t do that.”
“And even if he did, why?”
“What would he have to gain?”
“I knew it all along! We shoulda never trusted him!”
“Dude!”
Cliff suddenly spoke up over all the others, “Why should we even trust you? Who are you?”
“Are you a detective or something?” Blade asked. She had wanted to say lawyer, but that simply seemed too out of character for this rough and tumble pony.
A thin smile creased Shard’s lips but it did nothing to soften his grim visage. If anything, it made him look more menacing. “Yeah,” Shard replied. “Something like that. I’m just someone looking for answers.”
“And those answers would be..?”
Leaning towards Mogul, Jet whispered, “Dude, do we even know what the questions are?”
“I may know more than you about what’s going on, but I don’t know everything. However, I do know how we all can find out.”
“How?”
“There are files in Yanus’ office that detail everything. I managed to get a look at one of them some months back, which is how I found out about the first track, but I haven’t been able to get anything else since. If we get this information, it will be a big start in nailing him for what he’s done. I’m working on some other things, but we need this first.”
“So you’re suggesting that we break into Mr. Yanus’ office and steal these files?” Cliff said. The very notion was more than a little distasteful to him.
“It would have to be done in complete secret. With everyone moving into the new building, security is light at best. I would have gone already, but I’m not as young as I used to be. However, with your unique talents, I’m sure you could do it completely undetected.
“Cliff, I don’t know about this…” Luge said from behind.
Cliff shared her misgivings, but something in the back of his mind was telling him otherwise. Shard stood back and let the young ponies discuss the situation by themselves.
“We can’t just break into his office, that’s like against the law and stuff,” Bungee said.
“But what about what he’s doing to us?” Blade asked her. “Isn’t that even worse?”
“Dude, why don’t we just call the cops?” Jet inquired.
“We don’t have any proof of anything,” Cliff countered in frustration.
And Mogul added, “Besides, if cops came looking, he’d just destroy the files.”
“It wouldn’t be wise to involve the authorities just yet,” Shard said at that point. “You’re right that he’d be able to destroy the files. If he catches wind of this before I’m ready, it will ruin everything and he will be able to walk away scot free.”
“No way,” Luge said, trying to convince herself more than anyone else. “We can’t do this.”
At that, Mogul scoffed. “If the rest of you aren’t willing to go, I’ll do it alone.”
Cliff quickly silenced them with a wave of his hoof. “Hold up, either all of us are onboard with this or none of us are. We have to make this decision as a group.”
“I’m in this all the way,” Mogul quickly said, but Cliff hushed him again.
“Look, Yanus has been sharing this information with the X-Crew. I think we can be positive of that. If we have it, it levels the playing field and makes everything the way it’s supposed to be.”
“In addition,” Shard said, “you won’t actually be stealing anything. The files need to look like they’ve been untouched. All you’ll be taking out of his office is photocopies.”
“So we get you these files and then we’ll get all the information on the trapped race courses?” Luge asked tentatively.
“It’s just that simple,” Shard replied. “But, in addition to the race information, there’s one more file that relates to some of Sa–Yanus’s earlier activities. I need that one, as well.”
“What sort of file?” Cliff asked.
Shard handed Cliff a slip of paper. “This has the information.”
Cautiously, Cliff took the paper but did not unfold it. Turning to his teammates once more, he said, “Let’s put it to a vote. What does everyone say?”
Mogul was the first to speak up enthusiastically, “Heck yeah, let’s do it.”
Blade was next, “Yeah, we need those files.”
“It does sound like fun,” was Bungee’s reply.
Jet said, “Yeah dude, I’m in.”
After a pause, Cliff asked, “Luge?”
With a sigh she finally said, “Okay, let’s do it.”
Cliff turned and presented their decision to Shard. “All right Shard, we’ll get the files. But not just for you, but because we need them, too.”
“Good,” Shard nodded. “The sun’s starting to go down. You’ll have plenty of time to act. I’ll meet you back here when you’re done.”
“Then let’s get started; we need a plan and quick.”
* * *
Two hours later, in the moonlit night, the six Extreme Ponies found themselves on top of the ESL Headquarters building. Mogul was busy rigging a winch above the sky light into Yanus’s office while Luge helped. She was still not enthusiastic about the entire operation, but she was at least convinced that it was the best way to go. Meanwhile, Bungee and Cliff, with the aid of Jet and Blade, were getting strapped into their harnesses which would be critical for the next stage of the plan.
“We’re all set here,” Mogul said with a thumbs-up. He, like all the others, was keeping his voice down, but every time one of them said anything, it seemed much too loud.
“Good,” Cliff replied. Doing one final check of his gear he added, “And we’re ready, too. Let’s get on with this.”
“Now all we have to do is open this…” Mogul gingerly lifted the skylight a fraction of an inch to ensure that their were no alarms and then proceeded to open it all the way. Bungee stepped right up to the edge and locked her harness into the cable leading from the winch.
“We’ll have to be careful,” she said. “The floor is probably rigged with pressure sensitive plates that will respond to the slightest touch.” With that, she jumped through the opening and let the winch take over as it slowly lowered her down.
Puzzled, Jet turned towards Cliff and asked, “Dude…what’s she taking about?”
Cliff just shrugged his shoulders and stepped up to the edge himself. By this point, Bungee had descended all the way to the bottom of the triangular-shaped skylight shaft and was now passing through the spacious void that was Mr. Yanus’s office. Slowly, she came closer and closer to the floor; but as she neared it, the winch did not stop. With trained skill, she managed to spread her legs out so as not to come in contact with the tiles. Finally, the cable froze mere inches from the button, which left Bungee suspended in a rather difficult situation.
She was just about to ask for Mogul to raise her back up a few feet when she noticed a bead of sweat rolling down her brow. She tilted her head so as to prevent it from striking the floor, but it managed to slip down her nose. There it hung on the very tip for what seemed like an eternity. As the drop of perspiration fell, her hoof flashed out and caught it less than an inch from the floor.
With Bungee still reeling from that, Cliff suddenly dropped down on a second line and his hooves hit the floor quite heavily. Bungee looked up in desperation but Cliff just shook his head saying, “Pressure sensitive plates? We’re not in some crazy spy movie.”
Before she could respond, they both looked up as the door to the office suddenly swung open. A guard brandishing a flashlight leaned inside and swung the beam across the room. As he scanned the section of floor where Cliff and Bungee had descended, the guard saw nothing. Above, Mogul was furiously cranking on the winch to raise his two comrades out of the line of sight.
The guard, who was obviously not going to give up so easily, continued to move the beam of light back and forth across the room several times. Finally, to the dread of the two ponies hanging in the skylight shaft, he began to work the light up towards them. Just as he was about to reveal their presence, a loud squawking racket came from the window behind Yanus’s desk. The flashlight beam swivelled down to illuminate a rather large bird which took flight upon being shined by the light.
Satisfied that everything was sound, the guard walked out of the room and closed the door behind him. The six Extreme Ponies all breathed a collective sigh of relief and took a few seconds to compose themselves before going on. Looking down into the room, Cliff could just barely make out Jet’s face smiling up at him from outside the window where the bird had been a few moments earlier.
Turning to Bungee, Cliff said, “Remind me to give him a raise when we’re done with this.”
Bungee, however, was not in a mood for jokes and looked rather irked with Cliff. “I told you not to touch the floor,” she whispered as loud as she dared, and then descended back down into the office.
Cliff rolled his eyes before his line began to drop him, as well.
This time he was more quiet about it, but he still dropped to the floor and no harm came as a result of it.
“Look,” he said walking around in a small circle, “it’s perfectly safe.”
Bungee, who was still hanging from the wire but had now rotated herself around into a standing position, merely crossed her forelegs and glared at him.
Dropping his forelegs to his sides, he said, “Let’s just find those files.”
Quickly the two of them began shuffling through the boxes of papers stacked around the room. In short order, they discovered that most of them were nothing more than perfectly legitimate files pertaining to the operation of the ESL.
“Wait, check this out!” Bungee exclaimed.
Cliff hurried over and looked down at the papers she was holding. “X-Crew Action figures?”
“Yeah, it looks like each one of them gets their own. X even has a second figure with an–” she added in a dramatic tone, “ ‘EXTREME SKATEBOARDING ACTION’!!!!”
“What about the rest of us?” Cliff asked.
“It looks like you and Nikita each have one... in the second assortment which also ships with another Smiley and Dragon figure and two more X figures,” Bungee said as she flipped through the papers.
“But why just the X-Crew?” Cliff wondered out loud.
“‘EXTREME SKATEBOARDING ACTION!!!’” Bungee read again, laughing, “I want an EXTREME SKATEBOARDING ACTION!!!”
“Dude, that’s like, the way toy companies work,” Jet whispered from the now half open window. “They make, like, a gazillion of the good guys and only one or two of the bad guys.
“But the X-Crew aren’t the good guys…OH,” Bungee said, suddenly realizing that Yanus was again playing favorites.
“He’s even going to cut us out of the merchandising!” Mogul muttered from above.
“Calm down and keep on that winch in case we need to get them out of there again,” Luge scolded.
“We’re not going to find any incriminating evidence in this stuff,” Cliff said, waving a hoof at the stacked boxes. “There has to be something else…”
Moving to Mr. Yanus’s massive desk, Cliff quickly looked inside the drawers, all of which were empty. “He hasn’t even had a chance to move in yet. Those files could be anywhere.”
“What about down here?” Jet asked. Cliff jumped, not realizing that Jet had not only entered the room but had squeezed in right next to him and was ducked down under the desk.
“How did you climb down the side of the building, anyway?” Cliff asked. “That’s, like, a shear wall.”
Jet paused in his search and looked up at Cliff with a completely serous expression saying, “Dude, just a little of this,” he held up his right hoof, empty, “and little of that.” He held up his left hoof, also empty. “But take a look at this,” he added and lifted a small metal case onto the desk.
“Where did you find that?” Cliff asked.
“In the secret panel in the front of the desk,” Jet replied matter-of-factly.
“Cool,” Bungee exclaimed as she swung across the room and came to rest on the other side of the desk.
Fiddling with the latch, Jet muttered, “Now how do you open it…?”
“Here,” Cliff said, taking the case from Jet and popping it open in no time at all.
“Looks like we hit the mother load,” Bungee cooed with wide eyes.
“Yeap, this is definitely what we came for,” Cliff added. Flipping through the papers, he saw the plans for all of the tracks that the ESL had used and was going to use in the future. On every one of them, several pit falls were marked in red with notes detailing how exactly to make them look natural and how to hide them from sight. Glancing at the first in the stack sent a shiver down Cliff’s spine. It was their first race with the ESL, the one he had lost only a few feet from the finish line. The only bright part of that defeat was that he prevented X from winning as well.
As Cliff had been going through that file, Bungee and Jet had located others to look through.
“What is this?” Bungee asked. “It’s like a bunch of gibberish.”
“Pony Pride,” Jet read off the title to the file. “Isn’t that a school or something?”
“Yeah, a university,” Cliff replied, pulling himself away from the track plans and looking at Bungee’s find. “They look like answer keys… I don’t know why, but that’s the other file Shard wants.”
“And what Shard wants, Shard gets,” Jet said. He meant it as a joke, but Cliff looked at him with intense eyes.
“We don’t work for him and we don’t owe him anything after tonight,” Cliff said with strong conviction. “I don’t trust that guy at all, but for the moment, it’s in our best interests to work together.”
“Dude, chill,” Jet replied. “I was just having a little fun.”
“Sorry, let’s just make those copies and get out of here.”
“Way ahead of you, boss-man.” Bungee had swung across the room again and had now started up the copier.
“Remind me to give both of you raises when this is done,” Cliff said.
“Dude, I’m gonna hold you to that.”
In no time at all, the Extreme Ponies had made copies of everything in the metal case and returned it to its original hiding place. They wasted no time in extracting themselves from the office and getting off the building. Soon, all six of them were back in the parking garage and Mr. Yanus’ office looked exactly as it had before they had made their entrance. No one would ever suspect a thing.
As they entered the darkened garage, Mogul asked, “So, where’s Shard? He said he’d meet us back here.”
“I’m right here.” Silently stepping out of one of the shadows behind them, Shard seemed to materialize out of thin air. “Did you get everything?” he asked.
“Yeap,” Cliff replied in a reserved tone. Handing Shard his set of copies, Cliff added, “But in the future, if you want our help with anything again, you better have some more answers about who you are and what it is you’re up to.”
Shard barely acknowledged Cliff’s statement as he flipped through the papers. “You kids did good tonight. With this information, I think you’ll be able to hold your own against the X-Crew.”
“And what about you?” Blade asked. “What are you going to do?”
“Me?” Shard flashed another one of his smiles. “I think we’ll be seeing each other again.”
With that, he turned and walked out of the garage, leaving the Extreme Ponies cloaked in the shadows of the night.

NEXT: “Concert Chaos!”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Anchor and Sails
by Sugarberry (Sugrbery@aol.com)

Hurrying to open the front door, Sugarberry frowned when she saw the orange stallion standing outside. From her expression, Wigwam made a correct assumption.
“She’s not here yet?”
“Wishbone and Garnet left an hour ago to meet the plane, but they aren’t back yet.” Sugarberry held the door, gesturing Wigwam to come in.
“I suppose with Blackcap and Sassy being on the same flight, they’re all having a grand reunion at the terminal.” Wigwam grimaced, taking one last look down the street in the direction that the wedding guests would be coming.
This August weekend would see the marriage of Wishbone and Garnet, and ponies were converging on Dream Valley to participate in the celebration. Of utmost interest to Wigwam was the arrival of Chocolate Chip from New Pony, although he had reined in his desire to meet her at the airport, keeping himself true to Tabby’s advice to let the mare have some room to find out what she really wanted out of life.
This wait was especially painful as Chocolate Chip had notified Sugarberry that she was bringing a friend with her, and Wigwam dreaded to find that Chocolate Chip had already found a stallion that met her requirements better than he did.
“Have your parents arrived yet?”
“Yes. They’re upstairs with Banderol. They’ll be down soon. Vanguard’s folks won’t arrive until tomorrow.”
“And the rest of your family?” Wigwam queried, wondering at the stillness of the house if Sugarberry’s nieces and nephews were in the proximity.
“The foals were excited to see their motel rooms; everyone will congregate here later. And Vanguard went to the grocery store for some last minute supplies.” She looked at Wigwam in concern, noting his nervous prowling about the room. Having become reconciled to Chocolate Chip’s abandonment, the stallion had appeared to be getting on with his own life as of late; she was surprised to see this sudden return of uneasiness.
Sensing the mare’s steady gaze fixed on him, Wigwam shared his thoughts. “If she waltzes in with some swank executive on her foreleg, I swear I’ll...” The stallion stopped his flow of words abruptly, realizing that his emotions were getting the best of him; he ran his hoof through his mane. “I’m sorry. I won’t cause any trouble.”
Setting a hoof gently on his foreleg, Sugarberry smiled reassuringly. “I trust you to be on your best behavior; but, we both have to face the fact that Chocolate Chip might have outgrown us all.”
The two ponies stared at one another, both remembering the past when the young, chocolate brown mare had been satisfied and comfortable in the confines of Dream Valley. Her dreams, however, had called her to New Pony, forcing her to leave behind her sheltered existence for one with more demands and more potential. Wigwam had lost the girl he wanted to marry, and Sugarberry had lost the filly who had spent four years as her lodger and friend.
“Chocolate Chip’s on her way,” Vanguard said, coming in from the kitchen. “I spotted her and Wishbone just coming around the corner as I was making for the back door.”
“Well, here goes,” said Wigwam squeezing Sugarberry’s hoof in his. He took a deep breath as if to steel himself for a reunion that might not be pleasant.
Vanguard opened the door to the sound of voices and laughter turning in at the gate, and Sugarberry rushed out to greet the New Pony arrivals. There was no sign of Blackcap and Sassy, however, and even the bride-to-be was missing from the group. Only Wishbone, Chocolate Chip, and her companion came up the porch steps, luggage in hoof.
“Chocolate Chip! How nice to have you home!” Sugarberry greeted the mare with a warm hug before holding her at foreleg’s length to assess her carefully. “You look as if New Pony agrees with you.”
“It does, but it’s great to see you and Vanguard again.” She drew both ponies to her and kissed their cheeks. “Are you sure you can put up with me for a few days?”
“Your presence will help ease Sugarberry’s loss of Wishbone after tomorrow,” Vanguard grinned. “She’s having a hard time seeing her second fledgling leave the nest.”
Wishbone had bypassed the trio and taken the luggage on into the house while the other New Ponian stood back, allowing the friends to renew their acquaintance; but Chocolate Chip, remembering her duties, reached out to draw the pony into the circle.
“Sugarberry, Vanguard, I’d like you to meet a dear friend. Xavier was from a small town, too,” she explained as she presented the goldenrod yellow stallion, “before he moved to New Pony; he and I have lots in common, and he’s been a big help in showing me the ins and outs of the city.”
When all the proper greetings and the information that Garnet had accompanied her parents directly to their motel room– she wanted to have a personal talk with them, especially with Blackcap, about what she expected from them... and, more importantly, what she would not condone from them– had been exchanged, Sugarberry urged Chocolate Chip into the house while signaling Vanguard with her eyes to keep Xavier busy outside. Knowing his wife’s penchant to see Chocolate Chip and Wigwam married and sharing in that endeavor, Vanguard drew Xavier back down the walk to assist in setting the sprinkler in operation in the garden.
Upon entering the house, Chocolate Chip cast a sentimental look around the living room, the feeling of coming home again enveloping her with a cornucopia of warm and fuzzy memories. Wishbone had gone directly upstairs with her suitcases and Sugarberry soon followed with some remark about fetching Banderol, so Chocolate Chip found only one other pony in the room.
“Wigwam!”
The smile she flashed seemed genuine, and the stallion relaxed a bit, stepping forward to take her hoof in his.
“It’s nice to see you again, Chocolate Chip. It seems forever since Sugarberry, Van, and I stopped in New Pony.”
It took an iron will not to draw the mare into his forelegs and give her a proper welcome, but Tabby’s lecture on giving the mare room to grow had been taken seriously; Wigwam did not want to risk alienating Chocolate Chip any further, so he restrained his natural impulse to hug her and smiled into her eyes instead.
“This will be a lovely weekend, standing up for the bride and groom,” Wigwam stated, trying to keep his envy for the happy couple out of his voice as he led Chocolate Chip to the sofa and sat beside her, keeping her hoof in his possession... as if to release it would cause the mare to disappear.
“My little brother has chosen well; I’m very happy for him and Garnet.”
“And are you happy with your work in New Pony?”
“It’s everything I hoped it would be; I’m kept busy doing interesting and challenging projects for the company. Fabia says if I continue to put forth my current caliber of work, I can expect a promotion later in the year.”
“I would depend on nothing but the best from you,” Wigwam said softly, causing a blush to darken Chocolate Chip’s cheeks.
“How are things going with the casino?” the mare asked, hoping to keep the conversation on an impersonal level.
“As smoothly as can be expected, but we’ll miss Garnet while she’s on her wedding trip. And Native Dreams is nearing completion– although Bittersweet would not concur with that fact; she’s convinced that the workponies will never be finished on schedule.”
An unexpected wave of jealousy washed over Chocolate Chip. “You and Bittersweet...” she began to say, but was interrupted by the entrance of Vanguard and Xavier from the back of the house.
“We’ve got the garden taken care of,” Vanguard noted, casting a glance from Wigwam to Chocolate Chip to ascertain how their initial reunion had gone. Discerning that there was neither animosity nor amorousness in the air, he, too, took the middle road. “Sugarberry’s very pleased that the gladiolas have timed their blooming to coincide with the wedding.”
Flowers were the last thing on Wigwam’s mind, however. He studied the yellow stallion with cold unfriendliness which caused Xavier to look to Chocolate Chip for direction. The mare, shrugging off her none-too-complimentary thoughts of Bittersweet, noted with perverse pleasure Wigwam’s disapproval of Xavier and assumed a most blissful smile as she led Xavier to Wigwam, introducing him as her closest friend and confidant in New Pony and enjoying the angry glint that flashed from Wigwam’s eyes.
“Glad to meet you,” Xavier said, shaking Wigwam’s stiff hoof. He could not help but note the animosity emanating from the stallion, and he cast a questioning glance once more at Chocolate Chip, only to be further discomposed by meeting with an adoring gaze from her.
Where did that come from? Xavier wondered, knowing full well that Chocolate Chip had no romantic notions where he was concerned. He did not have time to solve the puzzle, however, as Sugarberry– with Banderol and Wishbone– led two new ponies into the room; and as Xavier met and conversed with Strawberry Baskets and Strawberry Shortcake and furthered his acquaintance with Chocolate Chip’s friends, he kept an eye on both the flirtatious mare and the brooding Wigwam, puzzling over the nearly visible current of emotion that connected the two throughout the battle of wills that seemed to be taking place.
It was only when Strawberry Baskets asked Wigwam a question concerning the Native Pony culture being studied at the dig site outside Dream Valley that Xavier made the connection. He remembered clearly the night he had commented on the number of Native Pony CD’s that Chocolate Chip had in her music collection and the mare’s response... a delicate blush and an averted face as if she had a secret to hide. It also explained her negative response to his attempted kiss. Chocolate Chip harbored some deep feelings for Wigwam that she was determined to hide; and Wigwam, with less success, was doing the same.
Very interesting, Xavier thought to himself as he accepted the refreshments that Sugarberry had prepared for her guests. The independent mare left behind a besotted stallion, did she? And now she’s going to use me as a buffer of sorts to... What? Hold Wigwam at bay? Or goad him into action?
Xavier grinned. He would have to do some sleuthing to discover the true nature of the relationship between Chocolate Chip and Wigwam. In the meantime, he lost himself to the good food before him and the companionship of the ponies around him; he soon forgot the pensive stallion who kept to the fringe of the gathering.
* * *
The wedding rehearsal at the church that evening allowed both Chocolate Chip and Wigwam to set their jealousies to the side and fully enjoy the reason for their being together again... the marriage of Garnet and Wishbone.
Xavier had firmly rejected the offer to accompany Chocolate Chip to the rehearsal, unwilling to put himself forward in what was meant for those most intimately involved in the wedding. Wishbone had set him up with Caravel and Petal to show him the nightlife of Dream Valley– a visit to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe. As Bittersweet was not directly involved in the wedding, she, too, was absent. With neither pony to remind Chocolate Chip and Wigwam of the splitting path of their lives, the chocolate brown mare and the orange stallion were lulled into a reminiscent compatibility, aided by their pairing as one of the attending couples, for they could not dampen Wishbone and Garnet’s wedding plans by their own personal wishes and regrets.
For Wigwam, the evening spent in company with Chocolate Chip was both a pleasure and a pain. Their standing together was the most natural thing in the world, and he reveled in the honor of providing her escort and openly being matched with her. He could, without guilt, linger at her side and whisper amusing comments in her ear, laugh with her over shared instances of humor, relish the feel of her next to him as they walked up the aisle.
That is where the pain took over.
This should be their grand march. It should be the two of them coming together to exchange vows of love and unity. He wanted to sweep Chocolate Chip off her hooves and command Fr. Isaac to pronounce them stallion and wife– right now!– and make it possible for him to ferret her away to shower upon her all the love that he held for her.
But he could not. He had to be satisfied with playing the part of a mere friend. That was the hardest part of all.
* * *
It had been difficult for Wishbone to get a moment alone with his forthcoming bride, what with all their friends and relatives converging on them in the course of the evening’s busy schedule; but finally the last ponies had finally cleared out of her apartment– Blackcap had appeared to be ready to spend the entire night prosing on about his fatherly devotion to a daughter who had been urged to assert her independence at a very early age, and it was only through Sassy’s persistent persuasion that the stallion had eventually taken his leave– and Wishbone was able to garner Garnet’s entire attention for himself.
“Any second thoughts about our wedding day?” he queried as they stood on the porch, catching a cooling breeze that softened the heat of the day.
“Well...” Garnet drug out the word as if it had two syllables, and Wishbone’s heart plummeted to his hooves until he saw the sparkle in the mare’s eyes. “I’m still leery about having my dad in attendance; anything could happen.”
Chuckling, Wishbone concurred. “He was already haranguing Wigwam to open up the gaming tables during the reception. I’m afraid he’ll find that the dining and dancing are a bit too tame for his blood.”
“I wouldn’t be too surprised to find that he’s hired a polka band to encroach upon our plans.”
“And would you be able to join in?”
“Of course. I learned from observation. And when I was very young, Sable and I...” Her voice trailed off, remembering a long ago time when she and her several-year-older sibling were on good terms with one another.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t locate an address for Sable,” soothed Wishbone. “I would have forgiven him anything if his being here would have made you happier.”
“When I last saw him, he assumed I was using your friendship to pilfer something from you that I wanted. I wonder what he’d think if he knew that the two of us were to be married.”
“Something tells me he wouldn’t be pleased,” grinned Wishbone. He had once considered Sable a friend, but had learned the hard way that the dark grey stallion with cobalt blue hair would sell his own soul for a profit. For Garnet’s sake, however, Wishbone would have willingly set aside the past.
“You’re right– Sable wouldn’t look too kindly on our union.” Garnet sighed. “It’s probably for the best that we have to get along without him.”
Reaching out to bring her gaze to meet his, Wishbone murmured, “Life without you is what I find unthinkable.” He held her violet eyes with his aquamarine ones.
“And where would I be if I hadn’t found you? Still drifting about as my parents taught me? You’re my anchor, Wishbone.”
“If that’s so, then you are my sails.”
They shared a gentle kiss filled with the promise of a lifetime to prove their love.
* * *
Tugging at the tie around his neck, Wishbone rapped at the door to Sugarberry and Vanguard’s private rooms before setting off for the church. Hearing Vanguard’s, “Come”, Wishbone entered the sitting room to find the stallion reading to Banderol from a brightly-colored storybook.
“Wigwam says it’s time for me to get to church, but I wanted to talk with you and Sugarberry before I leave,” the young stallion said, looking a little nervous.
Banderol waggled his forelegs, begging to be picked up by the housemate who had been a big brother to him since his birth and was rewarded by being swung up into the rose-red stallion’s forelegs just as Sugarberry came into the room, spraying on some cologne as she finished her primping for the wedding.
“Wishbone! You look utterly dashing!” the mare grinned, circling the groom like a shark intent on its victim. “You’re going to break a bevy of beauties’ hearts today.”
“Not if Banderol gets his hooves on that bowtie,” countered Vanguard, reaching out to forestall the foal’s intent to pull on the unusual adornment around Wishbone’s neck. “Come to Daddy before you undo Wishbone’s preparations and make him late for his own wedding.”
“And I can’t allow that, Bandy,” Wishbone grinned, tousling the foal’s mane as the little one nestled into his father’s grasp once again. “The one beauty that has claimed my heart can’t be kept waiting,” he winked at Sugarberry.
“You do make a handsome bridegroom, however,” persisted Sugarberry, brushing back a tear. “And, oh, how this brings back the memories of our wedding day!” She cast a look of adoration on her husband.
“Precious, precious memories,” Vanguard agreed.
“If I’m going to make my own memories,” Wishbone interrupted, “I’d better get done what I came here to do.” He handed both ponies a white box in which they found a boutonniere and a corsage. “This is but a small thank you for putting up with me for the last three years. I wanted to give them to you now so that I could tell you how much your counsel and care have meant to me... and to Garnet, too. You accepted both of us without questioning, even when we gave you reason to become thoroughly disgusted with us. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Wishbone grinned. “What would I have done without all the cookies and milk for late-night snacks and the encouragement to keep my grades up?” Hugging first Sugarberry, then Vanguard, Wishbone continued. “You were Mom and Dad for me when I needed a steadying hoof, and I’ll always remember you in that respect.”
“The cookies and advice will always be here, Wishbone,” sniffed Sugarberry. “Just because you won’t be living under our roof doesn’t mean you won’t be part of our family.”
“She’s right, you know,” Vanguard agreed. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“And you two will be welcome to visit Garnet and me as well; we can begin to repay your hospitality.” Wishbone rolled his eyes as Wigwam’s voice bellowed up the stairs: “I’m not going to be the one to tell Garnet you backed out at the last minute, buddy!”
“I’d better leave. See you at the church!”
* * *
The wedding party was vibrant in color alone, but the happiness that this union generated outshone even the outward appearance. Chosen to stand up with the bride and groom were six ponies who had strong ties to their past and proud hopes for their future: Lollipop, Wishbone’s younger sister, the pastel pink and blue beauty crowned for the occasion with a wreath of pink and white roses, was paired with the denim blue Hawkley, Garnet’s friend and coworker at the casino; Rainbow Star and Pepper, whose homestead who had provided the backdrop for some of Garnet and Wishbone’s most dramatic life-happenings; and Chocolate Chip who had become a stalwart friend of Garnet when that mare had been new to Dream Valley, along with Wigwam, who had trusted the unknown stranger even when realizing her duplicity and discovering her unorthodox past.
No one in the church that day could doubt the love that Garnet and Wishbone had for one another as they stood before the congregation and pledged their troth. The red mare, adorned with white ribbons and roses braided in her scarlet tresses, and the rose-red stallion with golden mane whose bow-tie was only slightly askance, looked upon one another with undeniable devotion. Both voices were strong as they repeated their vows and exchanged their rings, and the grin that Wishbone bestowed on his bride when Fr. Isaac exhorted them to share a kiss was priceless.
* * *
This had to be the highlight of the day for Wigwam. Chocolate Chip was in his forelegs for the dance that was taking place at the casino after the dinner. It had been exacting at the wedding to hear the words binding Garnet and Wishbone for life while he and Chocolate Chip had stood as silent witnesses. He had come close to interrupting the vows to ask Chocolate Chip if she would reconsider his proposal on the spot; but he had taken one look at her and seen the starry-eyed euphoria she was experiencing as she watched her brother and best friend commit to one another and realized the insanity of interrupting a perfectly-executed ceremony with an emotional outburst that might get him nothing but another refusal.
Now, though, for the length of the song, he at least had Chocolate Chip to himself. Xavier had been pawned off on Patience, and Wigwam hoped that the Pony Pride filly would keep the New Pony stallion occupied for the course of the day, at least. There were a thousand and one things that Wigwam wished to talk with Chocolate Chip about, but as he gazed at her face so close to his in the dance, he could think of not one of those things. It was enough to have her in his forelegs, although her attention was directed at the newly married couple also on the dance floor. He watched as a frown creased her face; and in a moment, her gaze shifted to him.
“They’ll be happy together, won’t they?” she queried.
“They’ve been through some tough spots, so they know the road ahead won’t always be easy. Yeah, they’ll do fine.”
A relieved smile smoothed away the worried look. “He’s my little brother; I can’t fathom the notion that he’s old enough to know his own mind.”
“He’s sure of Garnet’s love; that’s all that matters.”
He had not meant it so, but his statement sounded judgmental to Chocolate Chip’s ears; and she was grateful that the music came to an end at that point. With a stiff smile, she thanked Wigwam for the dance, then turned to make her way back to Xavier. Wigwam could do nothing but let her go.
Appearing from out of nowhere, Bittersweet claimed Wigwam’s hoof. “What do you think of Garnet’s brother? He’s quite intimidating, if you ask me... so dark and... composed.”
“Garnet’s brother... here?” Wigwam’s immediate thought was that Sable had somehow learned of the wedding and had shown up even though Garnet had been unable to learn his current address. Sable was cheeky enough to attend, invited or not. Tawny would have a few questions for him, at any rate, concerning his sudden departure from Dream Valley when the cheating scam at Pony Pride had been uncovered. “Where is he?”
Bittersweet nodded in the direction of a dark purple stallion– so dark that he appeared almost black– with a dark red mane that could only be described as the color of dried blood. Sable was dark, but his mane was of an intense blue color. It was then that Wigwam realized he was seeing the oldest of Garnet’s siblings, Onyx.
“So that’s the chef from Hayton,” Wigwam murmured.
“Yes. Isn’t he... commanding?”
Hearing something like awe in Bittersweet’s tone, Wigwam looked at her questioningly. “Teepee’s out of town for all of three days, and you’ve moved on to greener pastures?” he chided.
“Good grief! Of course not! I’m just saying that this Onyx is quite... impressive. He gives me the suspicion that he expects me to bow to him... or something. He makes me feel uncomfortable.”
“I hear he has quite a reputation as one of the finest chefs in Ponyland. I suppose he takes it to heart.”
“Can you imagine him with a knife in his hoof?” shuddered Bittersweet.
The stallion under surveillance was indeed splendid, as he stood above every other pony in the room at the time. His size, coupled with his forbidding coloration, was enough to petrify a faint heart; but it was the set of his face that caused a pony to look twice and wonder just what was going on in the stallion’s mind– and nine out of ten ponies would determine that it was nothing good. The demeanor of the stallion was stately; his bearing, regal, his mien... well... impressive, as Bittersweet had noted. His eyes surveyed the room with open contempt.
“Was he accompanied by anyone?” asked Wigwam, wondering at the Amazon who would complement this stallion.
“No; he came alone.”
“Small wonder.”
As another dance was just starting up, Wigwam felt obliged to partner Bittersweet; his mouth set in a straight line when he saw that Chocolate Chip was standing up with Xavier. No one noticed that for a brief moment, Wigwam looked as menacing as Onyx.
* * *
Xavier had met Chocolate Chip and Wishbone’s baby sister, Lollipop, in the receiving line at church; but it had not seemed the proper time or place to let the filly know just how struck he was by her. Now, sharing a dance with Chocolate Chip, he noticed that Lollipop was dancing with her brother; and he used that as an opening for a fishing expedition.
“You’re sister’s very pretty,” he began, then regretted the remark when Chocolate Chip settled a cool gaze on him.
“Compared to me, you mean?” she witheringly asked.
“I didn’t mean it that way, and you know it,” Xavier defended himself. “I just meant that she’s as attractive as her sister.”
“Sure, you did.” Looking to where Wishbone and Lollipop were twirling, Chocolate Chip giggled. “Wishbone only has eyes for Garnet; he just stepped on Lollipop’s hoof because he’s staring at his bride dancing with Pepper.”
“If I remember correctly, you mentioned once that Lollipop is out of high school.” Xavier brought the conversation back to the topic he was interested in.
“Yup. Just graduated this spring. She’s going on to vocational school next month; she plans on helping Mom and Dad at their restaurant in Neighberry.” Chocolate Chip looked with assessing eyes at her sister, so pretty with her blue curls framing her pink face. Even though their mother had often held Lollipop’s looks up to Chocolate Chip as the perfection that she had wished for her firstborn– Twilight Jewel had never accepted the fact that she had given birth to a chocolate brown mare and had treated the foal as an oddity– Chocolate Chip harbored no resentment against the pastel sibling who bubbled over with personality and charm.
“She seems to make friends easily,” Xavier prodded.
“She never lacks for company,” Chocolate Chip responded, suddenly tiring of the theme of her sister. “Did you enjoy your visit to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe last night?”
“It was a lot of fun.” The statement was made with a lack on enthusiasm, as Xavier now wished he had accepted Chocolate Chip’s invitation to go to the rehearsal as he would have met Lollipop sooner and might even now be partnering the filly in the dance.
Eying the stallion inquisitively, Chocolate Chip arched a brow. “You don’t seem very taken with our local center of social activity. What gives?”
Forcing himself to show some interest in something other than Lollipop, Xavier appeased Chocolate Chip with an elaborate description of every pony he met and every bite of food he had eaten the evening before, adding several humorous details that had the mare laughing. It was on that note that the dance ended.
“I suppose you’d like a dance with your brother now,” hedged Xavier, already taking her foreleg and drawing her in Wishbone’s direction where the groom and his sister were still conversing after the music had ceased.
“I think Garnet...” Chocolate Chip tried to say that the bride deserved another dance with her new husband, but Xavier would not be deterred. He led her to Wishbone, then turned his attention to Lollipop who was herself eying the stallion with a great deal of interest.
Grinning at Wishbone, Chocolate Chip rolled her eyes. “Lollipop has made another conquest,” she said, nodding toward Xavier who was blithely leading Lollipop in the direction of the refreshment table.
“And that doesn’t bother you?”
“Why should it?” Chocolate Chip shrugged.
“Well, you did bring him here from New Pony as if he was somehow special to you.”
“He accompanied me so I wouldn’t have to make the trip alone.”
“Does that mean Wigwam still has a chance?” Wishbone teased.
“Don’t start!” Chocolate Chip warned, just as Garnet joined them. Pepper and Rainbow Star accompanied her.
“What’s Wishbone tormenting you about now?” queried the bride.
Wishbone took it upon himself to answer. “I’m so happy to have had my dream come true in marrying you that I’d like to see that same happiness for my sister here.” He put a foreleg around Garnet and grinned at Chocolate Chip. “However, knowing that you resent any interference in your life, I won’t press the point.” He swung Garnet into the next dance, leaving his sister behind.
* * *
“Buck, Columbine, you two have never met Toby and Fern,” realized Sugarberry, quickly taking care of that oversight, then deftly removing herself and the stallions away to allow the two expectant mares a chance to talk freely.
“Birdsong must be a lovely place,” sighed Fern. “Perhaps Toby and I can visit there someday.”
“Lilac received a cancellation for next week that she’d be happy to fill,” Columbine hinted, but seeing the melancholy look that crossed Fern’s face, she quickly added, “...although I can well imagine the difficulty for a doctor to get away on such short notice.”
“Even if he could get off, I wouldn’t feel up to the trip right now,” Fern admitted. Her gaze ran over Columbine’s swelling form. “How did you manage?”
“Buck and I traveled in easy stages, sort of a belated anniversary trip. Lilac and Trendy insisted that we forget about our duties at the bread-and-breakfast and enjoy ourselves. It didn’t take too much prodding,” the pale yellow mare grinned. “Our new home is filled with the smell of freshly applied paint, and that’s one thing that makes my stomach turn.”
“I was fine the first couple of months; but since then, I’ve been feeling miserable. It’s worst in the morning, but I don’t have much energy anytime,” acknowledged Fern.
“Just remember– your foal is growing bigger and stronger every day.” Columbine patted her mid-section to prove her point.
“Your foal is due so soon, and you look wonderful.” The mare could not keep a bit of envy from creeping into her voice.
“My mom always says I’m as strong as a horse,” grinned Columbine. “Buck claims that I’m stubborn as a mule.”
Fern could not help but smile at the vivacious mare.
A short distance away, Sugarberry quizzed Buck on the happenings at Birdsong; the country bed-and-breakfast was where she and Vanguard had met, so it and its occupants held a special place in her heart.
“Columbine and I’ll be moving into our new home when we get back; hopefully, the baby’ll allow us time to get settled before making his appearance.”
His?” queried Sugarberry. “Do you know that for a fact?”
“Both Columbine and I prefer to wait and see; but having grown up with only brothers, it seems the most likely outcome.” The stallion grinned. “Look at you and Van as proof.”
Toby chuckled. “What do you say, Van? What are the mathematical odds?”
“Don’t get him started, please!” cautioned Sugarberry before her husband could respond.
“All I can state for sure is that it will be one or the other,” Vanguard prevaricated. “Unless, of course, it’s one of each.”
“Or more,” added Toby.
“What are your brothers up to these days?” Sugarberry asked of Buck.
“Tramples is finished with the two-year agricultural program from the vo-tech and has his eye on the land that lies between Birdsong and Hollyhock’s parents’ acreage; in the meantime, he’s been helping Hollyhock’s father... as well as lending a hoof with Birdsong.”
“Is there a wedding in the near future for Tramples and Hollyhock?” wondered the romantically-inclined Sugarberry.
“They aren’t going to take the plunge until they know for sure if Tramples’ offer on the land is accepted.”
“And what of Licorice?”
“As you probably know, he’d decided to attend Binksville University; but since he learned that Pony Pride was instituting a new Computer Science degree, he’s been waffling... and time’s getting short.”
“Binksville is definitely closer to home,” mused Sugarberry.
“Spoken like a true mother,” grinned Buck. “Mom’s doing her best to convince him to keep with his original decision.”
“Pony Pride would be very happy to have him,” Vanguard noted. “I know he’s sharp on all accounts.”
“Am I to assume that Licorice is the baby brother of the family?” Toby asked.
“You’ve got that right,” verified Buck. “And that tells you he’s spoiled rotten. Mom can’t bear the thought of him leaving home.”
“Eighteen is so young,” contemplated Sugarberry, thinking ahead to Banderol’s setting off on his own. That concept caused her to frown.
“Eighteen-year-olds can conquer the world,” laughed Toby, seeing Sugarberry’s glumness. “Weren’t you about that old when you opted to stay in Dream Valley while the rest of your family moved on to Berryville?”
“It wasn’t an easy time,” confessed Sugarberry, “especially after Tabby left for college abroad.”
“Yes, but look at how wonderful you turned out because of the life experience you had,” affirmed her husband. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“Well, Van, it sounds like you should be the one to sell Mom on the idea that Licorice would be better off in Dream Valley than in Binksville. Licorice would appreciate your efforts,” Buck drawled just as Garnet and Wishbone came to join the group.
Sugarberry was immediately reminded of just how hard it was for her to let Wishbone go after a mere three years in her care, and her sympathy for Lilac increased. As she watched and listened to the ponies around her, however, the seed of an idea was born; she could not wait to talk to Vanguard about it. A smile replaced the melancholic frown as the mare began planning for the arrival of a new boarder in her home.
* * *
Wigwam and Bittersweet stood with a group of ponies chatting when Wigwam noticed that Blackcap was skulking around the perimeter of the room as if trying to avoid someone or something. His curiosity piqued, the stallion excused himself from the present company and made his way toward the father of the bride.
Blackcap was having a battle with his conscience as an episode from his past returned to haunt him. The episode in question had occurred some years back and had been so insignificant in his mind that he had entirely forgotten about it... until he met his new son-in-law’s grandparents the evening before. Something about the two elderly ponies had seemed vaguely familiar, and he had found himself searching his memory to place where and when he might have come across them before. That recollection had avoided him until the middle of the wedding ceremony when a vivid picture had come back to him causing him to break out in a cold sweat.
It had been a rough time for him and Sassy; he remembered that clearly. He had been forced to leave his wife in Grayton, waitressing at some sleazy restaurant, while he had gone on the road to earn some quick jangles. Finances were tight, and he was having a rare spell of bad luck with his regular ploys at separating unsuspecting ponies from their hard-earned savings. He had been relegated to the unenviable circumstance of doing actual manual labor to build a base from which he could once again get a shot at something more substantial. In hindsight, Blackcap regretted his choice of operation.
It had been so simple, watering down the cans of red paint that the rural ponies loved to see on their farm buildings so that the paint would go farther; and applying the paint had been sort of a therapy for a stallion who was down on his luck– there was a certain amount of pride involved in turning a dreary gray barn into a vibrant red edifice again. In giving the buildings new life, Blackcap himself had been invigorated. It had been the springboard for a new wave of chicanery that had put him and Sassy on solid financial ground again.
But one of the sheds coated in the substandard paint had been the barn of Camomile and Forester, Wishbone’s grandparents. That was why Blackcap was nervous: What if they recognized him as the stallion who had misrepresented the quality of his services? What would they think of such a lowdown trick being played on them? And if Garnet found out he had rooked Wishbone’s grandparents, she would be displeased, to say the least. She had already read him the riot act about behaving himself at the wedding; he did not want to think about what she would have to say about his past adventures.
It had been a trying time trying to avoid any further face-to-face meetings with either Camomile or Forester during the course of the day’s activities, hanging on to the hope that those ponies would not remember the itinerant handypony who had stopped by their farm; yet it seemed that every time Blackcap looked in Forester’s direction, that pony was looking straight back at him as if he, too, was unsure of where or when they might have met.
To make matters worse, Garnet had seen fit to invite not one, but two cops to her wedding! Blackcap was stricken when he recognized Chief Tawny in the crowd, and he was sure that the rather somber stallion he had seen talking to his daughter like an old friend was the chief in Binksville; a scapegrace like himself could not be too careful when in the presence of law enforcement officials– some of these cops did not look kindly upon the tactics that inventive-minded ponies used to keep afloat. This explained why Blackcap was looking for a niche in which he could disappear for awhile.
Taking one last look around the room, Blackcap shuddered. His guilty conscience was probably reading more into the situation than was intended, but the sight of Forester, Tawny, and Bastian with their heads together as if they were comparing notes caused Blackcap’s nerves to rattle. And at the exact moment that he sighted them, the three stallions looked up in his direction, causing Blackcap to mutter under his breath, “There is such a thing as a statute of limitations, for Pete’s sake!” when a familiar voice drawled behind him.
“Your past catching up on you, Blackcap?”
Blackcap nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Wigwam! Don’t sneak up on a pony that way!” Taking a quick peak back at Forester, he was dismayed to see him determinedly coming nearer with Chief Tawny and Chief Bastian close behind. “Oh... ah... if you’ll excuse me, Wigwam, I’ve got to use the facilities.”
Wigwam grinned as Blackcap darted off, and the three stallions marched up.
“Tawny was just relating your recent adventure in Vulcanopolis, Wigwam,” Forester said. “That was a mighty fine thing you did, helping to rescue those two baby ponies.”
“I really didn’t do much other than to offer my support,” admitted Wigwam.
“Are you saying you weren’t on top of the action?” scoffed Tawny.
“Actually...”
Bastian interrupted. “From what we’ve heard, you were right in the thick of things.”
“I was, but it was Vanguard and Giorgio who...”
“Oh, don’t be so modest,” Tawny growled. “A trained professional couldn’t have let a couple of average Joes best him.”
“Okay. Have it your way.” Wigwam winked at Vanguard who was listening in on the conversation. “But Van here knows the truth.”
“So there you have it,” smirked Bastian. “He’s the one that told us that you were a veritable hero.”
Catching Wigwam’s grimace, Vanguard laughed. “I fully explained that Giorgio took out two of the rogues; and you, my friend, fortuitously forestalled the third.”
“I, however, did not have to contend with two disgustingly messy brats,” Wigwam retorted.
“True,” Vanguard grinned. “You missed the best part.”
* * *
Forester found Blackcap on the far side of the pond behind the casino, the stallion idly swishing a fallen twig through the water and watching the ripples cascade across the surface. They reminded him of how one small action could have repercussions that traveled through time to eventually return to their source... like pulling a fast one on a stranger who was now part of the family.
“This is a beautiful spot,” Forester softly said, enjoying the march of cattails near the shore and the floating lily pads decorating the surface of the water. A heron ignored their presence further down the shoreline and several ducks bobbed contentedly beyond the rushes.
As if he had expected this encounter, Blackcap tossed down the stick and turned to meet the older stallion eye-to-eye. “It’s a good place to reflect.”
“I imagine it is,” agreed Forester. He nodded toward the long-legged heron as it pulled a fish from the pond. “We have sandhill cranes where we live. Have you ever heard the noise one of them can make?”
“No.” Bemused, Blackcap wondered why the stallion did not immediately launch into a lecture on the dishonesty of having one’s barn painted with watered-down paint that simply washed away in the first good rain.
“Well, it’s a sound that can make goosebumps form on a pony, like hearing a dinosaur or something.”
“I never wondered what a dinosaur sounded like,” Blackcap reflected, looking out over the pond again.
“And I guess we’ll never know for sure,” chuckled Forester.
The two stood in companionable silence for some moments before Forester came to the point.
“Have you had any experience in painting barns, Blackcap?”
“I’ve painted a barn or two,” Blackcap replied, once more meeting Forester’s intense gaze head-on.
“I thought you might have. The reason I’m asking is that my barn needs a new coat of paint, and it dawned on me that you might be just the stallion who could take care of it.”
Unflinching, Blackcap pondered the statement before answering. “I just might be, at that,” he finally agreed.
“You’ll be paid, of course. I thought maybe you and your wife could come by the farm when you leave Dream Valley... maybe travel with Camomile and me.”
“I’ll take it up with Sassy, but I’m sure she’ll enjoy a few days on the farm,” Blackcap surmised.
“Great! Camomile will enjoy the company.”
The two stallions shook hooves on their agreement, both satisfied with the outcome.
* * *
“Garnet and Wishbone do make a handsome pair, don’t they?” sighed Sassy as she, Twilight Jewel, and several other mares watched the bridal couple mingling with their guests.
“Yes,” agreed Twilight Jewel, pleased with the union her son had made, although she still harbored some uncertainties about Garnet’s parents. Still, she would not see that much of Blackcap and Sassy after this day was over, fortunately. “And I do believe Lollipop and that young stallion from New Pony have danced the last three dances together. He seems like a personable enough fellow, courteous and pleasant to talk with.”
“I’m sure he is,” commented Fern, sitting out a dance. “Chocolate Chip would never introduce a scoundrel to her family and friends.” Too late realizing that Sassy’s husband was by nature a scoundrel, Fern regretted her choice of words; a deep blush suffused her green cheeks.
Sassy’s eyes twinkled. “A scoundrel can have merit,” she teased.
“That still remains to be seen,” uttered Burgundy Lace who hoarded a lifetime of disgust over her wayward brother.
An impending spat was avoided by the arrival of Toby with a glass of punch for his wife, accompanied by Vanguard and Sugarberry. Twilight Jewel took advantage of the opportunity to pull Burgundy Lace away from Sassy to introduce her to some friends from Neighberry. Burgundy Lace scowled at Sassy, but allowed Twilight Jewel to neatly defuse the situation.
“Are we interrupting?” queried Sugarberry as the two mares departed.
“Fortunately, yes,” giggled Sassy. “I’m afraid Lacey was just about to give me another lecture on past indiscretions.”
“Thanks to my ill-advised comment,” admitted Fern.
“You said nothing out of line,” comforted Sassy. “Burgundy Lace has been spoiling for a fight since Blackcap asked her for a dance.” Sassy winked. “She refused his offer, by the way.”
“Garnet was hoping her aunts would put aside their animosity for the day,” noted Sugarberry, “although Blue Pearl seems to be enjoying herself.”
“Doesn’t she, though?” smiled Fern. “She and Rambler seem to have hit it off very well.”
“He does have quite a way with the ladies,” agreed Toby. “He and every other employee from Pony-Mart seem to be here today; I wonder who’s running the store, or did they close down like the casino?”
“I hear they simply adjusted working schedules to accommodate Wishbone’s coworkers,” Vanguard supplied.
“Oh, look,” giggled Fern. “Aunt Maisie and Crescendo have taken to the dance floor!”
“Have you regained your breath so that we could have another go-round?” asked Toby of his wife as he extended his hoof to her.
“Assuredly,” Fern asserted, her blue eyes sparkling up at her handsome husband.
“Later,” Toby grinned at the others, guiding Fern onto the floor.
Noticing that Wigwam was tied up with Bittersweet– listening to the unicorn’s chatter while eying Chocolate Chip from across the room– Vanguard suggested to Sugarberry that it might be a good time for him to dance with Bittersweet to give Wigwam a chance to spend more time with Chocolate Chip. Sugarberry quickly agreed and settled down to get to know Garnet’s mother better.
“It’s been a joy to meet your other children, Sassy. Onyx, I hear, is the talk of Hayton’s gourmets.”
“And would you believe that, as a foal, he couldn’t seem to fix his own toast?” Sassy laughed. “Ebony was the one who could cook a good meal, but now she and her husband eat out most of the time. Jesse’s as rich as Croesus, you know.” She shook her head in wonder. “A pony just never knows what lies ahead.”
“That’s all for the best, I’m sure,” Sugarberry smiled, knowing that she would never find a moment’s peace if the tragedies and the disappointments of the future were known to her; she worried enough over present troubles as it was.
“Yes,” agreed Sassy. “Who wants to invite trouble?”
* * *
“I have a special delivery for this address,” said a uniformed pony, nodding to several delivery carts with the Ponyland Parcel Service logo on their sides which sat outside the casino entrance loaded down with boxes wrapped in white paper with glistening bows attached; another attendant waited beside the carts.
Sammy looked at the load and readily surmised their purpose. “Wedding gifts, I suppose.”
“What’s in ‘em I don’t know; I was just told to deliver them here,” the cinnamon-colored stallion said.
“Okay,” groaned Sammy. He did not mind working this wedding celebration, but now it looked like he would be spending the next ten minutes packing in boxes... and big ones, at that. Realizing that it would be heavy work, he directed the PPS ponies to take the carts around to the back of the building so that they could convey the packages more easily directly to the ballroom. Catching sight of Hawkley, he asked him to inform Garnet of the arrival of a wedding gift; then he hurried off to help unload the carts.
By the time Sammy and the two delivery ponies had carted in the full load of gifts, an impressive stack of boxes cluttered the casino. The cinnamon-colored stallion waited impatiently for a signature from the recipients while Hawkley directed Wishbone and Garnet to the largess that was now theirs. When the newlyweds finally broke through the crowd in front of him, the delivery pony gasped.
“You!” he said, the single word filled with a wealth of meaning.
“Rusty,” Garnet cooly replied. “Still making deliveries, I see.” She looked nonchalant, but her eyes widened as she took in the size of the pile of boxes the ponies had delivered.
“And you’re still practicing artifice of all kinds,” sputtered Rusty, who on two separate occasions had been taken in by Garnet’s misguiding portrayals.
Wishbone stepped forward. “I’ll not have you talk to my wife that way,” he cautioned. “If your work is finished here, I suggest you leave... now.”
Rusty scowled and dug in his hooves. “You might be interested to know...” he began, but was silenced when Bastian removed himself from the crowd of interested onlookers, along with Buck, Wigwam, Pepper, Blackcap, and Tawny– all of them more than ready to defend Garnet’s honor.
“Would you like me to sign that for you?” Bastian queried in a authoritative voice.
After one look at the stallion whom he recognized as the police chief from Binksville, Rusty backed down. “I... I need the signature of a...” he referred to his chart momentarily, “a pony named Wishbone.”
“That would be me,” Wishbone said, taking care of that chore as quickly as possible. “Now go,” he growled, thrusting the chart back at the delivery pony. His glowering expression sent Rusty out the door post haste after which the groom assumed a less menacing face before turning to Garnet. “Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be... with you here to protect me,” she smiled, giving him a light kiss on the cheek. “My stalwart husband,” she whispered in his ear.
“Who sent this... stuff?” Wigwam asked, directing everyone’s attention away from the mishap with Rusty. He lifted an eyebrow. “Do either of you have a rich uncle?”
“Mama has a brother, but his invitation came back, ‘Return to Sender’; besides which, I don’t think he’s this wealthy,” Garnet giggled, shrugging off the tension that had threatened her happiness such a short time ago; she had been honest with Wishbone about her past history and had no need to cower under the likes of Rusty, but still the experience had been discomposing. She was glad to put it behind her.
“Was there a card?” asked Wishbone, studying the boxes for a clue as to the sender. They seemed to be missing the normal labels one would expect on a PPS delivery.
“There was something on the side of one of the packages,” Sammy recalled. “Let me see... yeah, here it is, on the biggest one.” He tore it off and handed it to Wishbone. The printed label was generic in every aspect.
“Who cares who it’s from?” laughed Troy and Lariat, fellow students of Wishbone’s at Pony Pride. “Let’s see what’s inside!” They followed up their suggestion by beginning to peal the wrappings off the packages.
In the meantime, Wishbone offered the card to Garnet. “My side of the family would never come up with a gift like this, sweetheart. I’ll give you the honors.” His cocky grin helped to set Garnet at ease, and she opened the envelope with increasing curiosity. She found a scribbled note inside.

Garnet–
I heard of your wedding and wish you well. I’m aware of your efforts to locate my present whereabouts and realize that you couldn’t send me an invitation without that piece of information; but for the time being, I prefer to remain in seclusion. If you or any of the rest of the family cares, I’m doing well for myself; so there’s no need to worry.
If Wishbone ever gives you any trouble, I’ll know about it... and will be there for you. Inform him that big brother is watching.
Sable
P.S. The gift was legally purchased... have no qualms in that regard. As I said, I’m doing well.

Wishbone, reading over her shoulder, drew a deep breath. “Well, now you don’t have to worry about how he’ll feel when he learns we were married,” he quipped.
Garnet, busily rereading the message, finally lifted her eyes to the uncovered boxes and gasped. The contents were the units of a state-of-the-art entertainment system: wide-screen plasma TV, digital receiver, six-disc DVD changer with DVD recorder, one-hundred disc CD changer, satellite receiver, digital video recorder, Dolby speakers. She lifted her gaze to meet Wishbone’s. “This cost him a fortune.”
“He’s ‘doing well’,” Wishbone quoted.
“But what’s he doing that brings in that kind of money?” she questioned, her face serious.
“Hey. Your brother said it was legally purchased– even Sable wouldn’t load you down with stolen goods on your wedding day.”
“You can be so sure?”
“For some reason, yes; I can fully trust him... in this instance.”
Allowing his confidence to bolster her own, Garnet looked back at the expensive gift in all its component parts. “Where in the world are we going to put it in our little apartment?” she whispered.
* * *
“What would you think about taking a little side trip before going back to New Pony?” Blackcap asked Sassy as the two of them sat out a dance.
“I don’t think Burgundy Lace would appreciate a visit from us right now,” Sassy replied.
Blackcap shook his head. “Not to Bubbling Springs, but to Neighberry.”
“Twilight Jewel has been kind enough, but I don’t think she’d want us on her doorstep either,” Sassy admitted bluntly.
“We wouldn’t have to see Twilight Jewel,” said Blackcap. “The invitation came from Forester and Camomile.”
“Wishbone’s grandparents?”
“Yes. It seems Forester could use a little help on some projects around the farm; I thought I might be able to help him out.”
Sassy frowned. “That’s not like you, Blackcap. What gives?”
“Can’t a fellow help another pony out if he’s a mind to?” Blackcap barked.
“Not when the pony’s Blackcap Lamplight,” Sassy retorted. “What’s in it for you?”
“He offered to pay me to paint his barn,” admitted the stallion.
“And what do you know about painting barns?”
“I’ve had some experience.”
“When?”
“That doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have a chance to help out our daughter’s new set of grandparents, and I think we should do it.”
Looking her husband straight in the eye, Sassy’s heart fell when the stallion couldn’t hold her gaze. “You’re planning something.”
“Sassy! Listen to me! I’m going to help Forester get his farm buildings back in tip-top shape. You can’t fault me for that!”
“Then look me in the eye and tell me that you have no intention of ripping him off... now or ever!”
Blackcap’s gaze wavered. “Not now or in the future,” he pledged weakly.
Never having been accused of being slow, Sassy’s eyes widened. “You’ve already done something, haven’t you?”
“It was years ago, Sassy.”
The mare stared at her husband for a good thirty seconds before she found her voice to say, “You’d better start explaining, Blackcap.”
Blackcap did.
* * *
“You promised me another dance, but you seem to be occupied with every stallion but me,” Wigwam complained when he finally caught Chocolate Chip without a partner. “Dance with me... please?”
“As long as you don’t expect any conversation,” the mare sighed. “I’ve talked so much today that I’m losing my voice.”
“No talking necessary,” Wigwam assured her just as the strains of a slow song began. He grinned. “... as long as I can hold you in my forelegs. Come on.”
The music was soothing, and Chocolate Chip found it very comfortable to allow Wigwam to lead her around the dance floor. It felt right somehow, she acknowledged to herself, unlike any of the other dances she had accepted this day.
The highlights of this visit to Dream Valley, the moments she would most often look back on, were the moments when she and Wigwam were companionably together, whether sharing a witty observation or catching each other’s glance over a humorous anecdote or, as now, when the two of them were in silent harmony with the music. She did not resist when Wigwam pulled her closer.
“‘Love weaves ties that last forever and hold two lives, two hearts together,’” the stallion whispered in her ear.
He was going to get sentimental. Chocolate Chip knew that could be a dangerous path for a mare who was committed to an independent life in New Pony. She cocked her head and smiled sweetly. “How poetic. Maybe you should publish a book of verse.”
“It’s not original. I stole it from the card I gave the newlyweds,” Wigwam admitted with a grin.
“How is Book Two of your Native Pony Tales coming along?”
Wigwam chuckled. “Bittersweet’s involvement in my life has not been conducive to writing,” admitted the stallion. He felt a definite tensing of the mare in his forelegs and noticed that a shutter had seemed to close off the soft glow in her eyes. “What did I say?” he asked.
“Bittersweet.”
That one word seemed to sum up an encyclopedia of information by the sound of her voice and the accusation of her expression. Wigwam could not have been more pleased. Obviously, Chocolate Chip had made the exact– although incorrect– assumption that Teepee had made about the closeness between him and Bittersweet. And if that erroneous knowledge upset Chocolate Chip, that could only mean that she still tendered some feelings for him. He refused to release her as the music ended.
“Just where do things stand between you and Xavier?”
“We were discussing Bittersweet,” Chocolate Chip snapped.
Wigwam ignored her words. “I notice he seems to be spending a great amount of his time with Lollipop. Does that bother you?”
“I don’t see why it should; he and Lollipop have a lot in common, and I’m glad they’ve become friends.”
“Good. That gets him out of the way.”
With his grip still firmly on the mare, Wigwam led her through the doors and down the path to a quiet spot in the gazebo. Chocolate Chip glared at him, resenting his abduction of her off the dance floor; yet, at the same time, she was pleased that he had cared enough to commandeer her in this fashion. She had begun to think that he no longer found her the light of his life for he had seemed rather distant in his attention to her at times; and even though she was not ready to commit her life to him, she knew in her heart that she would always crave his affection.
Spotting Bittersweet scanning the patio for a sign of Wigwam, Chocolate Chip retorted, “Xavier may be explained away, but Bittersweet can’t seem to let you out of her sight.”
“I think Teepee’s behind that.”
“What does Teepee have to do with Bittersweet?”
“You’ve been away too long, my sweets. Teepee and Bittersweet are as good as engaged.”
“What?” Chocolate Chip was so surprised that she sat down abruptly on the bench that ringed the gazebo.
Taking the place next to her, Wigwam explained the details of the chain of events that had finally opened Teepee’s eyes to the truth about himself and Bittersweet.
“If that’s the case,” Chocolate Chip puzzled, “then why is Bittersweet shadowing you today?”
“Teepee had to be out of town for the weekend; and, as he had some concerns about how you might treat me while you were here, I think he set Bittersweet the task of watching over me.”
“They think that they need to protect you from me?” Chocolate Chip choked, her eyes narrowed in absolute disbelief.
“Well, you’re a big-city girl now; you might’ve snubbed a country boy like me.” He brushed her cheek with a gentle kiss. “I’m glad you didn’t.”
“Oh, Wigwam, I have missed you!” Chocolate Chip admitted but put out her hoof to forestall a too exuberant response from the stallion. “But it’s also true that I’m enjoying my life in New Pony. I still think I made the right decision.”
“And I won’t interfere with that. But remember, Chocolate Chip, that my love for you hasn’t altered. The engagement ring I offered you is still in my possession. If at any time you change your mind, all you have to do is say the word; and it’s yours.”
“I can’t promise you anything.”
“I’m not asking you to.” He drew her to him, burying his face in her mane for a moment before he lifted his head to meet her eyes. “On the other hoof, maybe there is a promise I’d like you to make.”
“What’s that?”
“That you’ll always be my friend.”
“You’ve got it.”
* * *
“Well, Garnet, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by what I found here today,” the black mare with dark purple mane smiled. Ebony was Garnet’s sister, between Onyx and Sable in age, Garnet being the youngest of the family.
“Surprised?” queried Garnet, confused.
“I almost didn’t come.” At her sister’s crestfallen expression, she hastened to explain. “I’ve kept my distance from Mom and Dad for a long time, having gotten my own life straightened out after their earlier influence.” She glanced around the room. “You know what I mean.”
“I understand that well enough,” Garnet admitted. “I did the same myself. But surely you would want to share this day with the family?”
Looking somewhat guilty, Ebony spoke hesitantly. “I... I didn’t know... I wasn’t sure if you had followed in our parents’ hoofsteps or not. I hadn’t heard anything about you for a number of years.”
“So you assumed I had kept to a life of deceit and dishonor?” The knowledge that her sister had such a low opinion of her made her feel cold inside. It made no difference to Garnet that she had indeed lived that sort of life until only a couple of years ago; having put it behind here once and for all, she felt like those years had been lived by a totally separate person.
Seeing the affect of her admission, Ebony reached out to touch Garnet’s hoof. “You were the baby, Garnet; and you had Sable as well as our parents to guide you. I thought... well, I imagined that you would have no choice but to turn out as wily as them.”
“There was a time I idolized Sable,” admitted Garnet. “But he would only work alone, and that hurt me. But it was for the best, because it left me to make my own way... and I grew tired of all the scheming involved in outsmarting the next easy mark.” She paused, thoughtful. “You met Buck from Birdsong?” At her sister’s affirmative nod, Garnet continued. “It was some dealings with him that made me realize that I wanted more from life than what Mom and Dad had considered important. And when I came to Dream Valley, Chocolate Chip and Wigwam and Wishbone and so many other wonderful ponies here cemented that desire to change.” She sighed. “And here I am today, creditably employed and with a most loving husband.” Her eyes sought out that stallion where he was conversing with some of his friends, and she flashed him a special smile as their gazes caught.
“Well, imagine how I felt when Mom reached me to tell me of your wedding plans and informed me that the reception would be held at a casino! Putting that fact together with the knowledge that you were on good terms with Mom and Dad, I could only assume the worst. It was Jesse who prodded me into coming; he was anxious to meet my family, for good or for bad.”
“I hope you don’t regret that decision.”
“On the contrary! I’ve found out that you’ve succeeded in rising above Mom and Dad’s dubious upbringing and gathering a splendid bevy of friends who treasure your companionship. I’m very proud of you.” She hugged her sister. “Besides, I really needed to get away from my in-laws for a little while at least. Jesse’s mom has been... well, never mind about that.”
“You know, Mom and Dad seem to have mellowed down through the years. Maybe we can all be a family again.”
“Let’s take this one step at a time,” cautioned Ebony with a laugh. “I can see that you are well set and respectable, but Onyx is still rather intimidating; and it will take awhile for me to accept Blackcap and Sassy Lamplight as pillars of the community.”
Garnet rolled her eyes and giggled. “Heaven forbid that they ever change that drastically!” She suddenly sobered. “And what of Sable? I wish he could have been here, Ebony.”
“Don’t worry about Sable. Didn’t his note say he was doing well? Sable will always land on all four hooves; he always has.”
Wishbone came to claim his bride for a last romantic dance, and Garnet grinned at her sister as she accompanied her husband to center stage. Her family was almost complete and now had expanded to encompass her in-laws. She had much to be happy about.
* * *
“The newlyweds are not going to have any need for their new entertainment system tonight!” Wigwam barked at the motley crew that was preparing to cart the gift boxes over to Garnet’s– and now Wishbone’s– apartment to get the equipment operational. “If you’re so impatient to get the stuff set-up,” he said in a milder tone, “maybe they’ll give you access to their home while they’re on their honeymoon.” The young couple was leaving for a beach-side vacation on the morrow. “It wouldn’t be such a bad gift for you to give them to have it all hooked-up and ready to go when they return.” He narrowed his eyes. “But not tonight!”
“But this system is awesome!” argued Spike, the dragon, his grip on the satellite receiver remaining steady.
“Yeah! Yeah!” agreed Friendly, already half-way to the door with the DVD changer. Caravel set down the box he held, but looked regretful. Lariat and Sammy groaned as they deposited the wide-screen TV back on the floor.
“You’d never believe the reality of the sound from a system like this,” debated Lariat. “It’s got Dolby digital THX certified six-point surround sound speakers with subwoofers. It’ll sound like you’re right in the midst of the action!” His eyes went dreamy at the thought.
“Yeah, and this Sable-dude included some really awesome movies,” Troy exulted, rummaging through a package. “Terminator 2, Matrix, Saving Private Ryan...” The stallion disregarded Titanic and several other sentimental flicks. “And, look! A universal remote!”
“What?” gasped Wigwam. “Let me see that.” Then, remembering what he was about, he reiterated. “The gift stays here tonight!” Deliberately, he grabbed the box of DVDs from Troy’s hooves and set it safely behind him. “If Garnet and Wishbone agree, you can pick everything up tomorrow afternoon and haul them over to the apartment.” Garnet and Wishbone would be safely out of town by then.
“What’s up?” asked the bride and groom, coming to check on the altercation.
Sammy sidled up to Garnet. “Here’s the plan: Spike, Friendly, Caravel, Lariat, Troy, and I...” He pointed to each individual as he said their name. “...take this stuff over to your place now and get it running; we’ll have plenty of time to watch at least one of these cool movies tonight yet...”
“Whoa!” Wishbone intoned. “I don’t think...”
“I’ll supply the popcorn and sodas,” volunteered Spike, thinking with his stomach. “No problem,” he added, seeing the disbelieving looks on Garnet’s and Wishbone’s faces. “Happy to help.”
“We had other plans,” weakly offered Garnet.
“What could outshine watching Arnie on the big screen with surround-sound and all this other cool equipment?” asked Lariat. He took one questioning look at Garnet and Wishbone, and reality hit him. “Oh.”
Troy, too, belatedly saw the light. “I guess the two of you would want to get to bed early tonight,” he grinned, then added, “... because of the trip ahead of you tomorrow, of course.”
“Exactly,” agreed Wishbone, breathing a sigh of relief.
Friendly shrugged his shoulders. “Ponies!” he scoffed disgustedly to Spike.
Ah, yes! Ponies!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Marshmallow
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)

Brightblade and Medley walked down the street to the Satin Slipper Sweet Shoppe hoof-in-hoof. Inside, Sitting Bull, Breeks, and Marshmallow were enjoying a round of sundaes. “Eh, Brightblade! Over here!” the bison called out when he saw his friend enter.
“Hey Bullhorn! I hope you left some ice cream for us.”
“I’m a bison, not a pig! How’d that business of yours turn out?”
“How do you think?” asked Medley, as she held up her hoof to show off the antique engagement ring Brightblade had given her.
“All right, Brightblade! Now you’re almost a man!”
“Sheesh, I just can’t get a break with you.”
“Now don’t you two start arguing,” said Medley.
The couple sat down with their friends. “So, how’s Marshmallow doing?” Medley asked.
The young pony looked up from her sundae. “I’m fine. I just wish I could remember more about my past. I wish I knew where my family was.”
“I looked through the phone book to try and find your family, but apparently they don’t live in Dream Valley anymore. But I’m sure we’ll be able to find them.”
“Yeah! Sure, it’s been fifty years, but I’m sure they’re still lookin’ for you! All we gotta do is put the word out that you’re back! Before long, you’ll be together with your family again!”
“Thanks, Sitting Bull. But what will I do until then?”
“You can stay with me,” said Medley. “I’ve got plenty of room.”
“Oh, thank you so much! I hope it won’t be too much of a bother.”
“Of course not. I love having kids around. That’s why I’m always babysitting Baby Racer. Besides, it’ll only be until we find your family.”
“I hope we’ll still be able to be friends once I’m back with my family.”
Medley put her foreleg around Marshmallow’s shoulders. “I’m sure we will.”
* * *
The next month passed with no word of Marshmallow’s family. Even the Dream Valley police weren’t able to find any leads. Breeks the raven was personally searching all of Ponyland for any information on Marshmallow’s family. Marshmallow herself wasn’t bothered too much by the lack of progress, although she often wondered what it would be like to have a family. She had no memory of her family, or anything else from her past. But for now, she was happy living with Medley. Much of her time was spent helping Medley plan her wedding and working part time at Brightblade’s antique shop. She was also receiving special tutoring to prepare her to return to school come fall. She had already met with the principal of the school, Mrs. Quince, who had been her classmate before she disappeared. Mrs. Quince was able to confirm that the young pony who had been rescued from Wendigo was indeed Marshmallow, but meeting her old classmate wasn’t able to bring back any of Marshmallow’s memories.
* * *
One day, while Marshmallow was working at the antique shop, Sitting Bull came barging in. “Hey, little Marshmallow! Is Medley or Brightblade around?”
“Brightblade is in the back.”
“Hey Brightblade! Get out here! I gotta talk with you!”
Brightblade came out from the back room. “Do you have to bellow like that, Bullhorn? I mean, you could have just come back and talked to me there.”
“What I got to talk to you about concerns Marshmallow, too.”
“Me? Have you heard something about my family?”
“Aw no, nothin’ like that. But I got an idea how to get you your memory back!”
“You…do?”
“Well, it’s just an idea. But Grandfather can do all sorts of things, including hypnosis. I figure he could hypnotize you into remembering! Thing is, he’ll need your permission and Medley’s before he can do anything.”
“Do you really think it will work?”
“It couldn’t hurt to try. Right, Brightblade?”
“I guess. It’s up to you, Marshmallow, if you want to try it or not.”
“I…think I’d like to know about who I am.”
* * *
Later that day, Medley stopped by the antique shop to pick up Marshmallow on her way home. “So, how was your day, Marshmallow?”
“It was good. Sitting Bull stopped by. He thinks Grandfather can help me get my memory back. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to try it.”
“Who am I to say whether or not you can try to get your memory back? If you want to try it, I’m willing to give you the chance.”
“Oh, thank you Medley! Since tomorrow is Saturday, do you think we could do it right away?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“Great! I’ll call Sitting Bull– he’s staying with Brightblade tonight– and let him know!”
* * *
The next morning, Marshmallow, Medley, Sitting Bull, and Brightblade met at the antique shop. As they set out for Grandfather’s, Sitting Bull took the lead, with Marshmallow close behind asking him all sorts of questions about Grandfather, whom she had only met briefly after being freed from Wendigo. Medley hung back from the rest. After awhile Brightblade fell back beside her.
“Hey Medley, is something wrong?”
“Oh, nothing, really. I’m just a little worried. I’ve really grown quite fond of Marshmallow, but what if she isn’t the same pony once she gets her memories back?”
“If you were worried about that, why’d you let her go through with it?”
“It would have been selfish to deny her her past just so I wouldn’t lose her.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry about it. She may have lost her memory, but I’m sure she’s still the same pony she always was.”
“I hope you’re right.”
* * *
Later that day they arrived at Sitting Bull’s house. “Ah, here we are, and just in time for supper! Hey Running Water! Kids! We’ve got company!”
Sitting Bull’s two boys came running from behind the house. “Papa, Papa, what’d you bring us?”
“Nothing this time, I’m afraid. Your mother chewed me out something fierce last time. By the way, you know Brightblade and the little filly, her name’s Marshmallow. And this is Brightblade’s fiancee, Medley. Medley, these are my boys, Soaring Eagle and Fallen Rocks.”
“It’s nice to meet you boys.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s nice to meet you too!” said the younger boy, Fallen Rocks.
“Uh huh,” said Soaring Eagle, the eldest.
At the front door they met Sitting Bull’s wife, Running Water, and their baby daughter Babbling Brook.
* * *
After supper, the adults sat down to talk while the children went outside to play. “What sort of games do you play?” Marshmallow asked Soaring Eagle.
“Hide and go seek, tag, and foot racing mostly. Nothin’ that a girl would be interested in.”
“Oh yeah? I bet I could beat you at any one of them!”
“All right then. Hey Fallen Rocks, what you wanna play?”
“Tag!”
“Great, I’ll be ‘it’.”
Marshmallow and Fallen Rocks took off as fast as their hooves could carry them. Soaring Eagle waited a few seconds, then took off after Marshmallow. He moved like a charging locomotive, closing in on the little pony in no time. But Marshmallow, hearing the thunderous beating of his hooves, turned sharp to the right. Soaring Eagle wasn’t able to turn as fast as she had and ran right past her. He made a long, curving turn and charged Marshmallow again. This time she charged him and turned away at the last second, this time to the left. Soaring Eagle had to turn all the way around. Fallen Rocks had stopped running and was watching his brother get out-maneuvered by Marshmallow. Soaring Eagle charged once more, closing rapidly on Marshmallow. The little pony ran away from the young bison, waited for him to get close, and then changed direction. But this time Soaring Eagle turned almost as quickly as she did. The chase continued, Soaring Eagle matching Marshmallow move for move. Fallen Rocks whooped and cheered as his brother and Marshmallow darted to and fro across the lawn.
But their fun was cut short. “Marshmallow! It’s time to leave for Grandfather’s!” Sitting Bull called out from the back door.
Marshmallow skidded to a stop and Soaring Eagle almost ran into her. “You’re not too bad at this for a girl.”
“You’re pretty good yourself. Tell me, how do you turn so good when you’re running so fast?”
“Aw, that’s easy. I noticed how close you let me get before you turned. When I was almost that close, I slowed down so I could turn better. In another couple of minutes I’d have had you.”
“Well, next time I’m here we’ll have to put that to the test.”
Soaring Eagle grinned. “I’m looking forward to it.”
* * *
Sitting Bull, Brightblade, Medley, and Marshmallow continued on to Grandfather’s lodge. Sitting Bull held aside the blanket hanging in the doorway for the others. Grandfather, the aged beaver, was sitting on the edge of the blanket on the floor as if he had been waiting for them. He gestured to Marshmallow. “Sit, child. The rest of you, please wait outside.”
Marshmallow sat down on the blanket opposite Grandfather. “Can you really help me get my memory back?”
“Yes. If that is what you really want.”
“I want to know who I am.” Grandfather was silent. Marshmallow sat nervously waiting for him to respond. As she sat she began to think. She thought about her friends, about Medley who had taken her in, and Brightblade and Sitting Bull and Breeks who had rescued her from Wendigo, and about Soaring Eagle who had played with her. As she sat, a tear came to her eye.
“Are you all right, child?” Grandfather asked.
“Yes Grandfather. I think I should be going now.”
Grandfather bowed. “Very well.”
Outside the lodge, Marshmallow found her friends waiting eagerly for her.
Medley was the first to speak. “Marshmallow?”
Marshmallow smiled. “I already know who I am, and who I am is happy. I don’t need to know who I was.”
Medley brushed a tear from her eye. “Marshmallow, I’m glad that you’ve found yourself.”
“Thank you Medley, and all of you, for showing me the way.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Ooh! Do you remember what happened three years ago in August? Neither do I! Okay, actually, that is when Tabby and Thomas were married. We had a whole special issue for the affair, remember that? That was cool, wasn’t it? Of course, now I want to revise certain parts of it because my writing is better now than it was then. But I digress. It occurred to me that we have not been hearing much about either Tabby or Thomas lately. How sad! So, on the occasion of their third wedding anniversary, I figured I’d try to write something about them. Ooh, how thrilling. One of my next stories should be more exciting– it’s a quest to find Dietrich and Caprice! You thought they were dead– but are they?! But for now:

The Forfeit
by Tabby (TabbyMLP@aol.com)

One fine August morning, Tabby came skidding down the grand staircase of her home and into the kitchen area. “Oh, it is so late! I’ll never get ready on time! Why didn’t you wake me up!” This frenzied speech was accompanied by much slamming of cupboard drawers.
“I did, but you obviously weren’t very conscious of it.” Thomas lowered the newspaper he was reading and eyed her critically. “And you know, a brownie isn’t a very nutritious breakfast.”
Tabby’s only comment was something mumbled about “no time, no time!” and she was about to rush out of the room again when Thomas grabbed her hoof to stall her.
“Wait, Tabby. Don’t you remember what today is?”
For the first time that day Tabby paused to think. What day was it? Well, it was August something-or-other. She never kept track of days. But there was a large bouquet of flowers sitting on the table, which was unusual. Tabby gave up and, cocking her head, stared at her husband cautiously. “Nooo... what is it?”
“Nothing too important, I guess,” he said, striving for a joking tone, but there was disappointment evident in his eyes. “Just our anniversary. Three years together.”
A strangled sort of cry came from Tabby as the full significance of this sunk in. Her face paled. “Our... anniversary?” She slowly sank on her knees down to the floor. “Oh, Thomas, I’m so sorry! I-I forgot. I’ve just been so busy and– oh, you’re mad at me, aren’t you!” Then her eyes started welling up with tears as they always did when she decided someone was mad at her.
Thomas just sighed and stroked her mane absentmindedly as she lay her head in his lap. “It’s all right. You have been doing a lot: helping Bolivia settle in, and working with Spike on the new museum exhibits, and digging in your flower garden.” He laughed, but it was a hollow sound. “I can see why an insignificant day like this would vanish into your schedule.”
“Oh, don’t talk like that!” Tabby said fiercely, grabbing his hoof and staring at him beseechingly. “It isn’t that I– it’s just that– oh, just tell me what I can do to make up for it! I’ll do anything! Just– just stop looking at me like that.”
Thomas shook his head and smiled wryly. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been so sarcastic with you.” He held her close. “I suppose it’s just selfish of me to expect to spend any time with my lovely wife.” Tabby started to protest, but he silenced her with a kiss. “Never mind. But I expect a forfeit from you for forgetting. After work we go off to be alone. Just you and me, for the rest of the day. No interruptions no obligations, only us. Agreed?”
“But I–“ Tabby started to say without thinking, but quickly corrected herself. Those engagements were hardly important enough to put off precious time with her husband. “Of course,” she amended with a quick kiss of her own. “With pleasure.”
“That’s better. I’ll be counting the hours until then.” Reluctantly Thomas released her.
Tabby backed off slowly, still a bit overcome with giddiness. “Well, I’ll get Faline ready,” she offered. “At this rate, we really will be late!”
* * *
Later on, Faline was happily settled in for an evening spent with “Aunt” Sugarberry and little Banderol. A picnic basket had also been prepared in advance, courtesy of the same Sugarberry after a call from Thomas that morning. And thus armed, Thomas and Tabby set off for the mysterious rendezvous point Thomas had alluded to.
“But where are we going?” Tabby demanded, as their path started leading into the Dark Forest.
“It’s a surprise,” was all Thomas would say. “You’ll have to wait and see.”
“But in the Dark Forest?”
“I thought you liked the Dark Forest.”
“Well, yes, for bonfires and stuff, but it just doesn’t seem... very...”
“Romantic?” Thomas supplied. “Well, we’re almost there. You’ll see soon enough. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in any case.”
“Ooh!” Tabby was suddenly struck speechless as they entered a forest clearing that was no ordinary forest clearing. Indeed, it seemed to contain remnants of a long-ago civilization which had mostly been overgrown and assimilated by the forest. What remained was a stone pavilion open to the sky above. There was a short stone wall built around the circular design; and at one end, a stone canopy formed a sheltering room. The area had apparently been used for open-air dining at one time, as the remains of the a stone table and benches remained. Upon further inspection, Tabby realized that a striking mosaic made out of colored stones decorated the floor, picturing ponies of long ago. A grassy slope off to the side led down to a quiet stream running further into the forest, and the ground was covered with wildflowers. Tabby fell in love with the spot instantly.
“This is the first time I’ve ever brought anyone else here,” Thomas finally broke the silence, draping a foreleg across her neck. “I came across it by accident shortly after coming to Dream Valley. Before the wedding I always snuck out here when I wanted to be alone.”
“And after the wedding I suppose I never gave you the chance to sneak away,” Tabby said coyly.
“Or I just didn’t want to.”
Tabby blushed slightly and set the picnic basket down on the rock wall. “Thank you,” she said simply. “For bringing me here, I mean. It is very lovely.”
Thomas looked at her as if to say he could think of even lovelier things than this, but instead just replied, “I’m glad.” The next instant Tabby found herself swept up in his embrace being kissed soundly.
“Oh,” she said, a trifle breathlessly after he had released her. “This is exactly what I needed, you know. To get away from everything for awhile. I’ve been so busy–“
”Yes, you have,” he agreed.
“And I’m afraid... I’m afraid I’d started taking you for granted. I have been treating you very shabbily.” She threw her forelegs around his neck and clung to him as if the world depended on it. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“I was afraid you didn’t care anymore,” he said softly, holding her close again.
“Oh, no, never,” she smiled up at him. “I just needed a reminder.”
“If you ever need one again, just ask.”
“Oh, Thomas, I do love you,” Tabby sighed contentedly. “Believe me I do, even if I get sidetracked sometimes.”
“And I do love you, even if you’re a featherheaded ditz most of the time.”
“Mm,” said Tabby dreamily. “I love it when you call me that.”
“A featherheaded ditz? Then I’ll use it more often.”
“And do you suppose we could look for crayfish in that stream later?” Tabby looked up at him hopefully.
“Ditz,” Thomas laughed. “Very well. But first, why don’t we see what Sugarberry provided for dinner?”
“Okay,” Tabby agreed readily. They proceeded to enjoy a pleasurable meal out in the open.
After dessert Thomas brought up a topic of some importance. “I’ve been invited by a former colleague of mine to attend a veterinary conference in New Pony next month,” he broached the subject.
“But not me?” Tabby pouted.
“You were included in the invitation as well,” Thomas hastened to assure her. “Do you want to go?”
“Oh, yes!” Tabby said, going starry-eyed. “There would be so much lovely shopping to do in New Pony!”
“The main objective of any trip,” Thomas said dryly. “You might also be interested in the fact that this conference’s objective is to find out more about the magic injections.”
“But the recipe’s expired and stuff,” Tabby pointed out. “They can’t learn much from that. They’d need to go straight to the source, find out who created the magic behind it in the first place.”
“Steuben claims that another freelance veterinarian has been discovered who is currently making use of the magic injections, and says she has information on their origin and how they work,” Thomas explained. “The conference is to determine the veracity of her claims and whether or not her solution is workable in fact.”
“Sounds interesting,” Tabby said, eyes gleaming. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“You were busy,” Thomas shrugged. “I take your enthusiasm for a ‘yes’?”
“Most assuredly!”
“I’ve also been thinking,” Thomas said suddenly, “of upgrading our clinic to a larger faculty.”
“Oh?” said Tabby, prodding him for more details.
“Well, there are a lot of new families with pets moving into the area. The workload is getting quite heavy for just us alone. And perhaps an addition onto the preexisting building. Steuben has a new surgery unit at his place in New Pony. I’d like to take a look at that and get some ideas.”
“It sounds exciting!” Tabby said enthusiastically. “We can even do some scouting for potential future employees while we’re out there. Hunt up aimlessly wandering college grads and all, y’know.”
“Ah, yes, aimlessly wandering college grads. I can sympathize with them,” Thomas reminisced.
You were an aimlessly wandering college grad?” Tabby said incredulously.
“We don’t all have rich parents to help us open our own clinic,” Thomas said, flicking a flower at her.
“Ooooooh,” Tabby said, catching the flower and adding it to her hair. “I guess that’s true. Ooh, and I’ve got to see if there are any crayfish down there!” Thus terminating the current topic of discussion, Tabby scrambled down the streambank and eagerly watched for any of her beloved crustaceans to make an appearance. Thomas soon joined her, and together they succeeded in spotting several stream crayfish.
“You almost have him! Don’t let him get away!” Tabby squealed from the relative dryness of the streambank while she sent Thomas into the water to do the work of catching. It was a particularly large crayfish they had cornered under a rock, and Tabby was determined to bring him home with her to her aquarium. “Almost... almost– nooo!” The crayfish scuttled backwards as Thomas’ hoof came too close. Rather than lose her prize, Tabby jumped into the water after him. Together the two ponies had quite a chase to get their hooves on the crustacean, who was devious and wily in his escape methods. Only after all the other crayfish in the area must surely have been scared away by all the splashing of water was a firm hoof actually gotten on this slippery crayfish.
“Hello, little guy,” Tabby cooed, accepting the prize from Thomas. “Oh, but you’re a girl! How lovely! Riv will love meeting you.” The crayfish didn’t seem impressed with this bit of information, and twisted her claws around, trying to get a firm grasp on her abductor. Tabby just temporarily relegated her to an empty food container in the picnic basket.
By this time darkness had fallen over the Dark Forest. Thomas perched on the rock wall of the pavilion and gazed up intently at the stars. “Isn’t the night sky fascinating, Tabby?” he said.
“I don’t like it,” she said bluntly, joining him. “It’s very large and... intimidating. I get lost in it.”
“Considering you get lost shopping at the mall, that’s not surprising,” Thomas acknowledged. “But you must admit the constellations at least are incredible. Look, there’s Scorpius.”
“The ancient ponies had no clue what they were talking about,” Tabby insisted.
“Why, Tabby, you’re remarkably unromantic when it comes to the stars!” Thomas stopped and looked at her.
“Apparently, yes,” but she condescended to ask, “What others are there?”
After Tabby’s mini-course in astronomy was completed, it had gotten quite late and time to pick up Faline and head home. “This really was a lot of fun,” Tabby said, turning to Thomas after the picnic basket was re-packed and ready to return to Sugarberry (minus the crayfish, of course). “I have a lot to thank you for. It was a forfeit definitely worth paying.” So saying, she twined her forelegs around his neck and they shared a fulfilling kiss.
It was some time before the two set off down the forest path again, in harmony with each other once again.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Temptation
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)

The sun rose over Port Scurvy. Key, of the Pony Sea Patrol, made the rounds at her office near the docks. Actually, there was not much to check. There was her office and a cell, and in the cell was her guest, Minoko. While Clever Clover and Belle Star were away at the Crystal Desert excavation, Minoko had been put under Key’s custody. “Hey Minoko! Time to get up. The docks aren’t going to clean themselves.”
Minoko looked up groggily from her bed. “You know, Clever Clover asked you to keep an eye on me, not lock me up. When he gets back, I’m going to have him talk to your superiors.”
“Actually, he asked me to ‘babysit’ you. And he approved having you put in some community service working on the docks. As for the cell, you know I don’t have enough room at my apartment and neither of us can afford to put you up in a hotel. So if you don’t want to sleep in the cell, you can sleep on the docks.”
“Yeah, well, I noticed you had room for Pixie and Ryo. And why couldn’t I stay on my ship? I’ve got a nice comfortable bed in my cabin and I’d be right there at the docks.”
“THEY are well behaved. And you know the conditions of your parole forbid you from being on board your ship unsupervised. But if you really like, I could have your bed moved into the cell.”
“Not likely; it wouldn’t fit in your office, let alone this cell. Well, since there’s no use even trying to sleep in this bed, I might as well get to work. Alright, you can unlock the door now.”
Key swung the door open. “I’m not an idiot; I noticed you disabled the lock two weeks ago.”
“Two weeks ago? So it only took you a month to figure it out.”
“Just get to work, will you!?”
Minoko shuffled out of the cell, collected her work kit, and headed for the docks. The office was only two blocks from the docks, but Minoko liked to take the scenic route. If she really tried, she wouldn’t get to the docks before noon. As she wandered the streets of Port Scurvy, Minoko mumbled to herself. “After a month and a half of this drudgery, I’m beginning to regret not going with Clever Clover. I guess a camping trip in the desert wouldn’t have been so bad, if it weren’t for Belle Star. She always seems to be getting in my way. And when she’s not around, Morning Glory is. It’s like they’re conspiring against me! I gotta do something to get my mind off of this. I hate to say it, but maybe I should be getting to work.”
Later, at the docks, Minoko swabbed the planks after a load of fish had been unloaded. The harbor master inspected her work. “Keep at it. We don’t want any safety hazards on my dock.”
“Yeah, right. You’re just getting back at me for blowing up your grog. If I hadn’t promised Clever Clover to be nice, I wouldn’t be taking any of this.”
“Well, you did make a promise, so now you’re mine. Once you’re done there, there are a couple of ships that need the barnacles scraped off.”
Minoko bowed with a flourish in mock respect. “Yes, master.” The former pirate returned to swabbing. “I can’t wait until Clever Clover gets back. This honest work is getting old.” Once she finished the swabbing, Minoko launched the rowboat she used to service the ships and the piers of the docks.
“I guess I’ll start with Key’s ship. She gets cranky when her ship isn’t ship-shape, and when she’s cranky, her cooking is awful. Not that she’s that great a cook to begin with.” Minoko moored her boat next to the Yagamo and began chipping away at the crust of barnacles. As she worked, she noticed something out of the corner of her eye– a shadowy figure standing on the deck of her own ship. “Hm, I wonder who that could be? Key and the harbor master know better than to board my ship, and my crew should take care of anyone foolish enough to try and board her. I guess I should give whoever it is a warm welcome.” Without showing that she was aware of the shadowy figure, Minoko summoned an energy ball. Then, with lightning reflexes, she hurled her ball toward the trespasser. But the mysterious figure leaped over the attack with a flip and landed light as a feather on the bow of Minoko’s rowboat.
“Now now, Minoko, is that any way to greet a guest?” the stranger asked.
“A guest is invited; you are a trespasser. Now, if you were to introduce yourself, I might not kill you.”
“I am called Nightshade. I have an invitation for you from my brother.”
“Do I know your brother?”
“Hemlock.”
Minoko formed her energy horn and leveled it at Nightshade. “That no-good apprentice of my no-good one-time master Jack O Lantern? Why would I want to accept an invitation from him?”
“Hemlock no longer serves Jack O Lantern. The one-time master wizard seems to have had a problem inspiring loyalty in his apprentices. My brother now rules the Night Clan and he wishes to open peaceful dialogue with the ponies of the Isle. He is still somewhat distrustful of them, however, and he wants you to act as an intermediary.”
“Me? I’m not exactly on the best terms with those Isle ponies myself, or with the Night Clan.”
“I guess I was right after all. You wouldn’t fall for such a fabrication. But my brother insisted I try. I think you are unhappy with your settled life. You long for the thrill and adventure of the pirate’s life. The Isle ponies don’t appreciate you, and neither do the ponies of Friendship Gardens or Port Scurvy.”
“Clever Clover appreciates me, and that’s all that counts.”
“Does he? Or does he simply tolerate you? He fears you. That is why he allows you to remain with him. They all fear you. But my brother and I respect you. You are a kindred spirit.”
“Clever Clover doesn’t fear me. He knows he can beat me in a fight; he’s done it before. And he wouldn’t string me along like that! The Sea Patrol would be more than happy to take me off his hooves, if he’d let them.”
“Oh, it looks to me like he has given you over to them.”
“This is only temporary. He invited me to come along with him. I chose to stay here.”
“True, he made the offer, but only because he knew you wouldn’t accept. Now he and that Belle Star are away in the desert together, while you are here slaving away for Sea Patrol Officer Key and that harbor master. You deserve better.”
“Better? Better how?”
“Here you are a prisoner, a slave. With us, you would be a general. A leader of ponies.”
“And where would I lead them? What is it you and your brother want?”
“We want to take our rightful place, to put our clan before all others. You were born of the Night Clan, after all. Even though you have mutually disowned each other. Do you not want to see your clan get what it deserves?”
“I belong to no clan. And I could care less which clan leads or follows the others. As long as Clever Clover and I are together.”
“But will you ever be together in the way that you want? Not as long as there are others who would stand in your way. If you were to join us, we could arrange to have those obstacles removed.”
“You…I don’t know.”
“Very well. You need time to think it over. Just call once you make up your mind.” And with that, Nightshade disappeared.
Minoko thought about what Nightshade had said as she finished her work for the day. By the time she returned to Key’s office, she had made up her mind. She sat quietly in the cell when Key arrived with her supper.
“You’re awfully quite this afternoon,” said the officer.
“I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”
“Well, here’s you supper. And I thought you might be a little lonely so I brought you a friend.”
Ryo, the lop-eared bunny, hopped out from behind Key and jumped up on the bed next to her owner, Minoko. “Myow!” she said.
Minoko patted her pet on her head. “Hey, it’s nice to see you too, Ryo. Thanks, Key.”
“Don’t mention it. After all, you’re not really a prisoner, so there’s no reason to treat you like one. Well, good night. See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, see you tomorrow.”
After Key had left, Minoko picked up her pet and looked her in the eye. “Ryo, look after my ship while I’m gone.”
“Myow?” the rabbit squeaked in confusion.
Minoko set down Ryo on the bed and spoke a single word, “Nightshade!”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
This month, the next three chapters of Sugarberry’s Silent are the Bells.

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

Chapter 4
The Locket

“I feel like it’s the first day of school,” Brietta admitted to her mother as she came into the kitchen for breakfast after a peaceful weekend of lounging between visits from relatives and friends who were anxious to resume ties with the mare now that Brietta was back in town.
“As well you might,” Lena said. “Your grandfather will be the strictest teacher you’ve faced yet.”
“What are you telling the girl about me now, Lena?” rumbled Conrad as he entered the room and made himself comfortable at the table while Anna bustled about with the final preparations for breakfast. The stallion appeared younger than he had when Brietta had first come home, and she hoped that her presence back in the family had allayed some of the worries he had taken upon himself.
Aiden followed his father into the room. “Well, Brietta, it’s a beautiful day on which to begin your career.”
“Is it?” Brietta asked, her eyes glancing out the window at the sloping lawn and gently swaying trees with the early morning sunshine slanting over the dewy grass. “I... I hadn’t noticed.”
“Brietta is a little nervous, Aiden,” Lena informed her husband of the obvious.
“She’ll be fine once she’s gotten a few contracts in her hoof,” Conrad remarked, accepting the coffee pot from Anna and filling the mugs on the table. “The business will be second-nature to you, Brietta; it’s in your genes.”
Aiden smilingly concurred. “You’ll do fine.”
* * *
When Aiden, Brietta, and Conrad got to the quaint stone building that housed their law offices, Colly was already busy arranging things for the day. Conrad walked Brietta to her office while Aiden reviewed his calendar.
“Still jittery?” her grandfather asked, eyeing Brietta closely.
“Not at all,” Brietta grinned, slipping into the chair behind her desk. “This office gives me confidence.”
“You’ll be under your father’s or my supervision for these first few days anyway, Brietta. We want you to be quite comfortable with all the office procedures before you sink your teeth into any solo work.”
“You don’t trust me, do you, Grandfather?” Brietta asked with a teasing smile on her face.
“In a word, no... not until I’ve seen what you’re capable of. Now, come with me so we can go over today’s strategy.”
“Yes, sir,” Brietta replied, getting up to follow her grandfather as if she were still a little foal. She sighed as she closed the office door. Not yet would her sanctum listen to the knowledgeable advice that she would dispense nor for awhile overhear her shrewd decisions. “Grandfather will treat me like an errand runner, I’m afraid,” she muttered to herself.
When they arrived at the outer office, they found Sloan and Dorian waiting with ledgers in hoof for the office meeting which invariably occupied the first segment of the day. Aiden, already on the phone with a client, waved them on, indicating that they were not to wait for him. The others entered the conference room, with Conrad taking the head of the table; Sloan, at Brietta’s side, pulled out a chair for her and she smiled a thank you. He sat beside her while Dorian pulled up the chair opposite her. He grinned his welcome, but neither of the stallions said a word, apparently in deference to Conrad’s strict protocol. He ran a tight meeting and would stand for no superfluous chatter. He glanced at Dorian to begin.
“Max is coming in with some land contracts,” the stallion said. “All of it should be relatively routine; I don’t foresee any problems. However, a new client from Grover is coming by concerning a merger possibility; I’d like you to be there for that, Conrad.”
Sloan was next, listing off some probate and estate cases that were nothing out of the ordinary. By that time, Aiden had joined them and announced that his day would be filled with meetings at the Greensway Corporation.
Conrad nodded his head. “You’ll have your hooves full there, although this is preliminary litigation. Brietta, I’ll keep you with me– I’ve got an unclaimed property case you’ll find interesting, and we’ll join Dorian this afternoon for his merger problems. Any questions?”
“Colly needs to see Sloan on some document changes for one of his estate matters; she has everything ready to go. Other than that, we’re all set,” Aiden said. His gaze rested on his daughter and a slight motion of his head let her know that he wanted a word with her. She lingered behind as the others went their way.
“Your grandfather will expect you to observe for these first few days, Brietta. I hope you’ll bear with his cautious methods.”
“Don’t worry, Father. I expect he’ll be harder on me than anyone else simply because I’m his granddaughter. I certainly will not chafe too much under his guidance; I’m sure to learn more in a day with him than in a week elsewhere.”
But by one o’clock when Conrad broke for lunch, Brietta was finding it hard to smile. For all her hopes, Conrad had invariably forgotten she was with him and had not included her by word or action in any of the morning’s proceedings with clients.
Fortunately, both Sloan and Dorian were ready for lunch at that time; and Conrad opted to study some documents and sent the three on their way.
“How was your morning, Brietta?” Dorian asked, casting a look in her direction that could not conceal the laughter in his eyes, although Brietta was in no mind to see it.
“Boring as Godfrey’s lectures!” she burst out– referring to one particularly monotonous professor at law school who could put his class to sleep faster than anyone– causing her companions to laugh outright.
“Conrad didn’t allow you one single input, did he?” Sloan queried.
“Not one, and the legalities were elementary. Any first year law student could have handled the work blindfolded.”
Dorian patted her shoulder. “Don’t fret; things will get better... in a month or so.”
“He couldn’t have been this... this smothering with either of you. He doesn’t trust me because I’m a mare rather than a stallion.”
“There you’re wrong, Brietta,” Sloan said. “I thought I’d never get a chance to face a client, but one day Conrad somehow determined I could be trusted and let me on my own. Don’t ask me what he based his decision on, as he never once questioned me or allowed me my own opinion.”
“I wouldn’t have believed it of my grandfather if I hadn’t just experienced it.”
“I was ready to jump ship after I was here three days,” Dorian admitted, “but Sloan told me to hang in there. And he was right. At some unseen juncture, Conrad cast me adrift and never looked back.”
“You’ll survive, Brietta. Just watch and listen. Conrad will teach you all you need to know, as long as you’re patient.”
“And here I thought he would expect too much of me!”
“He’ll soon be so proud of your talents that he’ll trust you to fly,” Sloan told her, guiding her into the Main Street Café where good food served fast but appealingly was the mainstay for upscale business ponies in this part of the town.
As the three ponies ate, they shared experiences from their days at law school, Brietta having followed the two stallions several years behind. Teachers’ idiosyncracies were discussed in detail, extra curricular activities were laughed over, and the memory of long hours of study were quickly dismissed for brighter, happier memories.
“One thing puzzles me,” Dorian began as they were returning to their place of business. “You two grew up here, and Sloan never hid his plans to return to work with Conrad and Aiden; but never once did I hear him mention you, Brie. Surely you must have been well-acquainted.”
Before Sloan could comment, Brietta responded with what she hoped was a light answer. “Sloan was a great companion when we were foals, but he was way too mature for a high-spirited filly when he got older.” A quick glance at Sloan told her he was not happy with her answer; the stallion’s face was set in a blank mask of indifference, but Brietta knew by his clasped jaw that he was restraining himself from a curt response.
Sloan’s face was no more pleased when Dorian drew Brietta into his office as soon as they had returned. Colly, too, frowned over that occurrence until Conrad, with several books in his hoof, joined Dorian and Brietta for their afternoon conference on mergers. When the representatives of Conlon and Associates from the neighboring town had been shown into the office to join the lawyers, Colly’s frown deepened. She did not condone the fact that Dorian had placed a chair for Brietta at his right side and much closer to him than was entirely necessary.
* * *
“Brietta,” Lena said with a certain amount of subdued excitement in her voice as she knocked softly outside her daughter’s third story bedroom, peering into the room as she did so as the door was fully open.
“What is it, Mother?” queried the mare, closing the book that she was reading in her quiet corner. The beautiful June day had beckoned for her to take a walk when she had gotten home, but she had picked up a book instead with the intention of reading only one chapter; but she had become so involved in the plot that she could not put it down. She almost welcomed her mother’s intrusion, however, as it forced her to surface to the real world once again.
“You’ll never believe what I found!” Lena trilled, walking across to join Brietta and sitting in the companion chair next to hers. Brietta noted that her hoof was closed around something... something that was obviously very small as there was no sign of its identity peeping out.
“Do I get three guesses?” asked the mare, grinning at her mother’s rosy visage.
Lena had obviously been cleaning somewhere in the house as she had a kerchief tied around her mane to keep the dust off and to prevent her hair from falling into her face. She went on as if Brietta had not spoken. “Do you remember that little jewelry box that had belonged to Aiden’s mother, the one he had salvaged from Myrna’s things before Conrad boxed everything up and shipped it away?”
“That wooden box with the different wood tones forming a pattern?” Brietta definitely remembered it as it had intrigued her when she was a foal, tracing the complicated configuration with her hoof, pondering how any pony could construct such a convoluted design by simply laying out the varying shapes of light and dark pieces of wood to fit together.
“I’d stuck it away in the closet, and I was rummaging in there today trying to sort things out when I came across it and decided to have a look inside again. Do you remember what was in the box?”
“Of course. It was a golden chain, very simple.”
“That’s right. I was going to look at the chain; but when I lifted it, I dropped the box. It hit the edge of the dresser... and popped apart.” Lena’s voice had become very mysterious.
“You broke it?” a puzzled Brietta asked.
Lena sat back and smiled. “It didn’t break. It hit in such a way that it revealed a hidden compartment. And this was inside.” She stretched out her hoof toward Brietta, on which nestled a golden oval pendant with ornate filigree on the front.
Brietta reached out and picked up the bangle, beginning now to understand her mother’s excitement. After Myrna’s death so many years ago, Conrad had attempted to wipe out all memories of the mare who had meant so much to him but had been taken from him so early in life. Just as he would no longer allow the bells to ring from the tower of Whitehall Place, he had also removed all signs of the mare’s vibrancy from the house in a futile effort to assuage his grief.
The cleansing had done no good, but Conrad had gained some comfort from the simple act of purging the mementoes from his sight. It was Aiden who had suffered most from this cruel eradication of all that was his mother’s; to lose her was one thing; to also lose any tangible evidence of her love and her gentleness was quite another.
Never one to disobey his father, Aiden had nevertheless sneaked into his parent’s room late one night after learning of his father’s vendetta and retrieved one token of his mother’s that would have to serve as the only palpable connection he retained of her.
And now that memento had released a further token of the mare who had been gone so long.
“It’s a locket,” noted Brietta, holding up the trinket and turning it over.
“Open it,” instructed her mother.
Brietta pushed in the catch that held the locket closed, and the two halves sprang apart, revealing tiny likenesses of two ponies, one easily identifiable as Conrad, the other a mare who had only been described to Brietta by her father.
“My grandmother,” Brietta breathed, her eyes darting to catch her mother’s. “It’s Myrna.”
“Yes, and isn’t she beautiful?”
The two mares sat in silent harmony, gazing at the mare who had become such an enigma in their lives by her blatant non-existence in the midst of all that had been so profoundly affected by her. To see her image was like opening a door to the past, a door that had remained closed for too long. Like the tower door, mused Brietta to herself as she wondered about this lady who, along with Conrad, had engendered Aiden who in turn had fallen in love with Lena and brought forth Brietta herself. The connection to this mare pictured here was overwhelming.
“Has Father...”
“I showed it to him as soon as got home,” Lena assured her daughter. “He had gone out to the patio to think through some of the legal problems from the day. When he saw his mother’s image...” Tears dropped from Lena’s eyes as she recalled how affected Aiden had been to see this mare who had been the heart of his world suddenly brought back to him, if only as captured by some early photographer some fifty odd years ago, for Myrna had apparently been near eighteen when her likeness had been recorded. “He went for a walk to get his emotions together before Conrad could see him and ask what had upset him so. We are not to say anything to Conrad until your father decides whether or not to reveal the locket to him.”
“I understand,” Brietta nodded. “Grandfather has his own way of dealing with things, but that may not be the best for the rest of us.” She stared at the image, unable to break away from it. “To have lost his mother when he was at the vulnerable age of sixteen must have been awful.”
“And Conrad expected him to take it like an adult, when even Conrad couldn’t cope with the loss,” reflected Lena. “Your father did well to face the reality as he did without the usual crutches to bear him along. I often have thought that’s what made him so special; he’s more aware of other ponies feelings than many of us are.”
“And it’s also why Conrad is so brusque in his dealings with others; he can’t allow himself to become too close to anyone,” observed Brietta.
“I’ve always thought there’d come a day when he would come to grips with his losing Myrna, but I guess some things are just too deeply engraved in our being that we can’t let go even if it would be for the best.” Sighing, Lena got to her hooves. “I’ll leave you alone for awhile to get acquainted with your grandmother in private, Brietta. It’s high time you got to know her.” With that, Lena quietly slipped out of the room.
Peering at the pony who stared back at her almost like a ghost from the past, Brietta found herself smiling. Myrna had been a gentle mare, her father had vouched for that. She had been pale blue with curling pink hair, from her father’s accounts; and although the picture was in earthen tones, Brietta could well imagine the exact shades and hues that had colored her grandmother.
There was an aura about this image that brought it to life in Brietta’s imagination; she closed her eyes and saw the loving kindness that would have radiated from all Myrna’s actions towards her family and her friends and the community in general. No wonder Conrad had been devastated at her loss.
When her ponderings turned into dreams, Brietta could not say.
She saw her father as he must have looked as a teenaged pony, his yellow body lean and trim, the sky blue hair cascading down his side. Myrna was baking cookies as her son loped into the room after a day spent with his friends, and she smiled at him contentedly.
“Your favorite,” she said, pouring him a glass of milk. But when she handed the drink to him, it had become a puzzle box fabricated of walnut and pine.
“Thanks, Mother,” the young Aiden had smiled, devouring a wooden cookie and reaching for more.
The dream had expanded, including now Conrad. The stallion had returned home from work and walked in on the pleasant scene in the kitchen where his wife and son were now both settled down with a snack, the wooden box between them.
But Conrad had no sooner taken Myrna in his forelegs to greet her with a kiss when she had collapsed against him; the puzzle box dropped out of her hoof, shattering as it hit the floor just as Myrna’s life drained from her. Aiden had stood in the background, stricken, holding splinters of the box as Conrad tried all in his power to revitalize the pony who was the center of both their lives. But he had failed.
Myrna moved on in a kaleidoscope of color, away from both the ponies who had idolized her, leaving them in a monotone existence devoid of her brightness. Conrad constantly called out for her while Aiden attempted to reconstruct the puzzle box. All was lost in a whirlpool of loneliness that threatened to pull in even the unborn Brietta who hovered on the edge of the stallion’s reality.
Then, suddenly, with a tinkling sound, the dream collapsed on itself.
And Brietta awoke.
Sitting up, the mare realized that the locket had slipped from her grasp as she slept. Reaching down, she retrieved the locket from where it rested on the floor.
“Grandmother,” she whispered, gazing at the mare in the photo.
And somewhere in the very depths of her psyche, she heard the bells toll.
* * *
“Something’s up,” growled Conrad as the family picked at their food at the evening meal.
Anna looked on, wondering where she had gone wrong. She traced the addition of every ingredient in every dish back through the food preparation and could find no reason for the lack of appetite that seemed to have stricken three-fourths of the ponies now at table.
At Conrad’s words, Aiden and Lena exchanged a glance that only set Conrad further on edge. “You might as well tell me as to look at each other that way,” he asserted. After staring down Aiden and Lena, he turned his searching gaze on Brietta, and she was forced to lower her lashes to cover the brightness of her eyes.
Aiden, now that he had been challenged, made his decision; he cleared his throat. “It involves something of Mother’s,” he said, glancing at his father but failing to meet his eyes for more than a second or two.
“What could that be?” asked Conrad, his voice indicating his suppressed indignation.
Lena, feeling sorry for her husband, spoke up. “There was a small jewelry box that Aiden had in his keeping; it contained a gold chain that he knew to be his mother’s. Today I was cleaning the box when it slipped from my hooves, and the ensuing impact caused a hidden compartment to open. Inside was a locket, a locket with youthful pictures of both you and Myrna. I showed it...”
Conrad pounded the table with his hoof. “Where is this locket now?” His voice rumbled like thunder.
“It’s back in the box.”
“Bring it to me!” Conrad thundered.
Lena looked at her husband who valiantly stood firm. “I’d given the jewelry box to Lena years ago; its contents belong to her now.”
“How did you get your hooves on it when I explicitly stated that all of Myrna’s things were to be removed from this house?”
“It was the one thing I retained of my mother’s; I needed something tangible to remember her by.”
Glaring, but at a loss for words, Conrad remained silent; but his brow was furrowed with the intensity of his emotions as he struggled to gain control of the renewed pain that ravaged him now just as furiously as it had when he had first lost his wife. When he could speak, he said, “This picture... I want it destroyed.”
“No!” burst out Brietta, rising to her hooves. “You can’t take away the last shred of reality concerning my grandmother.”
“This has nothing to do with you, young lady!”
“It has everything to do with me! And with Father, too! You can’t pretend that Myrna never lived; she was too important to both of you!”
“You will never understand just how important she was,” Conrad said, the anger suddenly draining out of him, leaving him looking old and feeble again.
Hurrying around the table to his side, Brietta put her forelegs around him. “Grandfather, we all realize that Myrna was the love of your life. I don’t know why she had to die so young, but she did; and I’m sure that she never wanted you to suffer so much from her loss. Father loved her too, you know; but he understood that the memories of that love were good and healing things that needed to be nurtured. Even if you destroyed the picture, you couldn’t take that away from him.”
“Then I’m guilty of loving her too much,” Conrad said. He stood and walked from the room.
Looking stricken, Brietta slumped into the chair he had vacated. “I should have kept my mouth shut.”
“No, you did the right thing,” Lena comforted her. “We’ve always let him hide his feelings behind this obsession of pretending that Myrna never existed. Maybe your words will begin to heal that part of him that lays festering.”
“It’s strange,” said Brietta, lifting her head higher. “Whenever I think of Grandmother, I think of the bells because Grandfather silenced them because of her death. But now that I’ve seen her likeness in that locket, it’s as if I can hear the bells, too.”
“I hope that doesn’t mean that you have your hopes up that your grandfather will relent on not allowing the bells to ring,” warned Aiden. “Your grandfather may let us keep the locket, but I don’t think he’ll ever change his mind about the bells.”
“Somehow, their ringing doesn’t seem so important now that I can picture Grandmother in my own mind so clearly,” Brietta realized. “I promise I won’t badger Grandfather about them ever again.”
Lena smiled, grateful that the mood of the evening was shifting to less distressing thoughts. “I can recall a time when you were adamant that they’d ring on your wedding day.”
Grimacing, Brietta shrugged her shoulders. “And I thought Sloan would be my groom,” she admitted, then grinned. “So much for dreams.”

Chapter 5
Uncertainties

The early July day that Brietta was given wing to receive her first client on her own was a sweltering hot one with temperatures climbing to ninety and humidity near one hundred percent. The past month had gone more or less smoothly with Conrad putting the episode of the locket behind him as if it had never occurred; his monitoring of Brietta had continued at a slow and steady plod until, just as Sloan and Dorian had predicted, Conrad had released her. She arrived at the office early– already feeling frazzled– glorying in the fact that Grandfather had not hung on to the old ways when it came to air-conditioning.
She dropped into a chair in the sedate waiting area, saying to Colly who had also found it advisable to come in early, “This weather will bring in a storm for sure,” while wiping the sweat drops off her nose.
“I heard on the radio that a low front will move through late this afternoon,” Colly said matter-of-factly, not even looking up from her work.
“That means we’ll have wind for sure,” Brietta shivered. “I hate strong wind.”
As Colly had no reply, Brietta stood and was moving to the hallway that led to the offices when Sloan arrived. “Good morning, Colly... Brietta.” He smiled, cool and assured as always even in the clammy, unpredictable weather that wilted Brietta.
The mares returned his salutation, and Brietta added, “Colly says we’ll have a storm before the day’s over.”
“The radio announcer said it; I just repeated it,” Colly clarified. She handed Sloan a note. “Grady called after you left yesterday; he said it’s not critical, but he’d like you to return his call.”
“I’ll take care of it now.”
Dorian came in mopping his face and headed straight for the cooler. “This weather is repulsive,” he noted, guzzling the small glassful and refilling it. “Where’s Conrad?” he queried, looking around the office.
“He and Aiden are meeting with the judge concerning the Cryndon case,” Colly informed him.
“Oh. That’s right.” He grinned at Brietta. “So what are you going to do today? Scrub the floors?”
Colly giggled, but Sloan gave Dorian a darkling glance. Brietta, however, defended herself. “Grandfather left his appointments for me to handle.”
“Easy stuff then, I presume?” Dorian continued to taunt, but his smile was bright.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” Brietta said and made her exit. She walked down the hall to her office door and, upon opening it, was met with the sight of a gorgeous bouquet of roses and baby’s breath on her desk. “Oh! How beautiful!” she breathed and found that Sloan and Dorian were immediately behind her.
“Read the card,” Dorian ordered, edging around the mare and crossing the room to fetch the white note that rested against the vase; Brietta’s name was prominently sprawled across the card in a masculine hoof. “Who’re they from?”
Brietta opened the message and blushed. “You two!” she cried and hugged them in turn. “What a couple of sweethearts!”
“We wanted your first day on your own to have a special touch,” Sloan said, maintaining his grasp on Brietta’s foreleg even after the hug had ended.
“As Dorian didn’t know I’d be on my own, I can surmise that he was railroaded into the surprise.”
“Think what you like, my dear,” Dorian grinned. “It was worth hearing your obvious pleasure at seeing the flowers.”
“And to be honest, Brietta, the flowers were Dorian’s idea,” Sloan admitted. “He lied about not knowing that Conrad had passed his approval on you. But remember, he’s just trying to bribe the senior partner’s daughter to get on your good side.”
“Well, he succeeded,” Brietta smiled, reclaiming her hoof. “The flowers are beautiful; it was a lovely thought. Thank you both ever so much!”
“You are very welcome,” Dorian bowed just as Colly came into the room to announce to Sloan that an unexpected pony was asking for him. “Says his name is Craig.” She looked scathingly at the flowers before leaving.
“Have a great day, Brietta,” Sloan smiled before leaving to attend to his work. “I know you’ll do a fine job.”
Left with Dorian, Brietta offered him a seat which he promptly accepted, while Brietta took her place behind the desk.
“What’s on your schedule, Brie?”
“An estate planning and several consultations.”
“Ah...”
“Yes, you were right; it’s easy stuff.”
“But you’ll handle it with finesse and expertise.”
“One would hope.”
“You’re not nervous, are you?”
“Not about the work...”
“What, then?”
“It’s just the worry that no one will take me seriously. Two of the clients coming in were in high school with me. I have this dread that they’ll laugh themselves silly to see me sitting behind this desk.”
“I’ve never worked under that handicap, not having landed a job in my hometown... not that I ever lived in one town for more than a couple of years anyway.”
“I can’t imagine that,” Brietta admitted. “I’ve lived with the ponies of Whitehall all my life. Why were you on the move so much?”
“I was shuttled between foster homes,” he stated simply.
“Oh.” Brietta was at a loss for words.
“My parents were unable to care for me properly,” Dorian added. “I didn’t like the idea of their farming me out, and I wasn’t the easiest colt to get along with.”
“If you were difficult, it doesn’t seem to have had any lasting effects.”
“Let’s just say that by the time I got out of high school, I’d had enough of seeing the courtroom from the accused’s point-of-view; I decided that with my experience, I should be fairly good at criminal law.”
“Yet you specialized in civil law.”
“By the time I’d gone through college and got into law school, I’d formed different opinions.” He got to his hooves. “I know you’re finding my life history fascinating, but I’d better let you have some time to get ready for your first appointment.”
“My gosh! It is getting late!” Brietta jumped up and came around her desk. “Thanks again for the roses; it was very considerate of you.”
Dorian looked at her with hooded eyes. “Sloan was right, you know. The flowers were a bribe of sorts...”
“Excuse me.” Colly was at the door. “You’ll need these files, Brietta.”
“Later,” smiled Dorian, quickly exiting.
Colly crossed to the desk and set the files on the glassy surface, then softly touched the blood red petals of the roses. “Very pretty,” she said; then, turning her gaze on Brietta, she added, “Just remember the thorns.”
Feeling a sudden shiver, Brietta shot a wary glance at the mare; but Colly only tossed her mane and left the office.
* * *
The storm broke that afternoon while Brietta was in consultation with a couple who had been several years ahead of her in high school; Dwaine was married now to Cara, and they were contemplating starting up their own business. When the rumbling of thunder made their business talk difficult, they lapsed into personal remembrances to wait out the frenzy of the storm.
“It shouldn’t be too bad,” Dwaine advised, watching Cara and Brietta at the window. Both mares were ill-at-ease due to the blasts of wind and rain that washed across the panes. “The weather pony didn’t issue any warnings.”
“I’ve hated storms like this since I was a foal,” Cara fretted. “Look at how the trees are swaying, Dwaine! I hate it!”
Dwaine came to his wife and hugged her close, but he looked curiously at Brietta. “Since when have you been afraid of storms, living in that big house. You used to brag about braving the storms that would cut across the ledge out there.”
“There was a tornado near Pembroke when I was away at school,” Brietta said quietly, her eyes never stirring from the motion outside the windows. “The devastation was horrible.”
“This squall will soon be over,” Dwaine asserted. Another punishing gust of wind belied his words, but it was followed by what seemed, to even the distraught Cara, a lessening of the force behind the awful slamming wind. The torrent of raindrops receded accordingly, leaving a straight and steady flow of drops before finally fading into a gentle rainfall. As the ponies watched, a ray of sunshine pierced through the clouds, and a brilliant rainbow arched across the sky.
“Thank God,” Cara murmured, smiling at last.
“Amen!” Brietta breathed freely. “Shall we get back to business?”
* * *
By the time Brietta had escorted Dwaine and Cara to the outside door, she found the other offices empty. “Where is everyone?” she asked Colly.
The secretary, busily organizing her desk in a hurry herself to leave the day’s work behind, answered as if it was a chore. “Conrad and Aiden called to say they were going straight home; Dorian left as soon as he finished with his last client, muttering something about some hazard or other; and Sloan had a meeting across town. I’m out of here myself-- you’ll have to lock up.”
Familiar with the necessary procedure for securing the offices for the night, Brietta was not concerned about that responsibility. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, Colly. Have a pleasant evening.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said before slipping out the door.
Brietta shrugged her shoulders. Why the mare seemed to resent Brietta’s presence, Brietta did not know. She had hoped the mare would soften in time, but Brietta was beginning to doubt that would ever happen.
Going back to her office, Brietta’s gaze went directly to the beauty of the roses. She stopped to touch the velvety richness of the red petals and to inhale the sweet fragrance that surrounded them, a reminder of corsages and bouquets that Sloan had presented to her down through the years for birthday dinners and school proms. The memories carried her back to those sweet and innocent times, and that is where Sloan found her.
“Pleasant thoughts?”
His voice startled Brietta and she jumped, her eyes flying to the stallion in the doorway.
“Sloan! I thought I was alone.”
“I finished my meeting, but wanted to look up some information while my questions were still fresh. How about you?” He had crossed the room while he talked, and Brietta found herself moving to a position that would place the solid desk between them. “There was a time you would have met me with no barricades,” Sloan said, his eyes holding hers.
“I was just remembering some of those times myself,” Brietta admitted softly.
“They were good.”
“Up to that night...”
“We could start over.”
“Finella stands between us, Sloan.”
“Brietta, I...”
The phone jangled into the moment, and Brietta pressed the proper button to put the call on conference. She should have been upset over the interruption in this private conversation with Sloan, for hadn’t she yearned for such a moment since she arrived back from Pembroke? But some perverse sensibility caused her to welcome the abrupt end of such a personal dialogue. “Brietta here.”
“Brietta, I’m looking for Sloan,” Conrad’s voice came through.
“He’s right here, Grandfather.”
“What can I do for your, sir?” Sloan asked.
“On my desk are some figures for the Burtron contract; you’re familiar with the project, so I’d like you to read off what I need.”
“I’ll pick up when I get to your office.” Sloan, whose eyes had not left Brietta’s face, bid her good day and abruptly left to attend to Conrad’s request.
“Your mother wants to know when you’ll be home, Brietta,” Conrad continued as he waited.
“I’m leaving right now,” the mare responded, hearing Sloan come on the line. “Tell her I’ll be there soon.” She ended the call, grabbed her purse, and beat a hasty retreat.
* * *
Sitting with her mother later that evening, Brietta broached a nagging dilemma. “Why does Colly resent my coming to work at the firm? She surely must have known that I’d join my father and grandfather when my education was completed.”
“I thought I’d noticed some tension between the two of you.”
“It’s not between us, Mother; it’s entirely one-sided on her part.”
“I can only surmise...”
“Any input will be better than the nothing I now have.”
“I think she might see you as a threat...”
“A threat?” Brietta gasped. “To what?”
“When Dorian was new in town, Colly helped him to get settled and acquainted with the place.”
“I’d have thought Sloan would have taken it upon himself to see to that sort of thing for his friend.”
“Sloan was a big help, I’m sure; but Colly filled in some of the gaps; she helped decorate his apartment to make it more home-like and...”
“Are you saying she and Dorian are romantically involved?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but Colly does rather look upon him as more of a friend than a boss.”
Brietta looked at her mother blankly. “So where is this leading? Why does she treat me like her number one enemy?”
Lena sighed before answering. “Brietta, it’s perfectly obvious to anyone with an iota of sense that Dorian is attracted to you.”
Her mouth dropping open, Brietta was speechless. Her mother continued. “Are you telling me that you haven’t been aware of his feelings?”
“Mother! Dorian’s a very kind stallion with a great sense of humor; he can set anyone at ease– I’ve seen him do it time and again at the office. But it doesn’t mean anything– it’s just the way he is.”
“When it’s you he’s ‘setting at ease’ my dear, he radiates a certain pleasure that goes beyond being kind. I’ve seen it... felt it; I’m sure Colly has, too.”
Brietta stood up and paced the patio where she and her mother were enjoying the fresh air that had moved in after the storm. After pondering her mother’s words for a minute or two, she sat down again.
“What am I supposed to do now?”
“Do you like Dorian?”
“Of course, I like him; who wouldn’t? He’s... very comfortable to be around. But I never gave him reason to think I was interested in him as anything more than a business associate.”
“You are a lovely mare, Brietta. I’m sure Dorian doesn’t need a list of reasons why he’s... intrigued with you; nor do you need to feel guilty if you return his feelings.”
“Mother, I haven’t looked at another stallion seriously since Sloan wrote me off all those years ago. I never thought I’d have the desire to, for all that matters. Stallions only complicate a mare’s life.”
“I’m sorry that Sloan found it necessary to end that special friendship the two of you shared, dear, but he’s chosen his own path with Finella. You’re free to make your own decisions without any regrets.” Lena patted Brietta’s foreleg and got to her hooves. “Don’t worry about a thing. But if you don’t want Dorian to lose his heart, I suggest that you find a way to let him know up front that his feelings won’t be reciprocated.”
Left alone with the surrounding darkness, Brietta tried to sort her thoughts. She had been home for weeks now, and she had yet to face her feelings about Sloan. What had she expected upon coming back into a life where she was thrown into nearly daily contact with this stallion who had once been her champion? If she was to be honest with herself, she would admit that she had nursed the hope that, once she was back in Whitehall, Sloan would have seen the folly of his ways and resumed that precious friendship that had existed between him and Brietta before Finella had become her nemesis.
But Brietta had found it impossible to pick up the pieces of that friendship while Finella remained a part of Sloan’s life, so she had resisted any situation that might have brought them closer together.
We could start over, Sloan had said just hours ago. The words tumbled over themselves in Brietta’s mind until she could stand it no longer. She fled indoors to seek the comforting companionship of her family.
“You’ve been quiet, Brietta; is something bothering you?” Her father set down the newspaper he was engrossed in at her entrance into the den where he rested. Conrad was in a chair across the room, and he closed the book he was reading, waiting for her answer.
“Handling clients on my own made me realize what a responsibility I have to them,” she said, sitting next to Aiden. “It’s rather overwhelming.”
Aiden patted her hoof. “It’s that sense of responsibility that will make you an exceptional lawyer, honey.”
“All the know-how in the world is to no avail if you don’t have compassion with which to use that knowledge well,” added Conrad.
“You two have been wonderful examples in that regard,” Brietta smiled. “And I’ll try my best to follow in your hoofsteps.”
They were interrupted as Lena came in with Anna carrying a tray with coffee and some freshly-baked peanut butter cookies. “I though you might be hungry, Brietta; you didn’t eat much of your supper,” Anna said.
“Oh, dear, sweet Anna,” Brietta hugged the mare who had cooked and cleaned for her family since before Brietta had been born. “You’re right back to spoiling me, aren’t you?”
Anna brushed off the sentimentality. “I’ve never done a thing to spoil you in your life; I’ve just made sure you kept your energy up with good food, and tonight you’re in need of some calorie-laden morsels to put some spring in your step.” She proceeded to distribute coffee and cookies to everyone, then bid the family goodnight.
“Do you know how often at school I would have given my good grades to see Anna come into my room with a tray of cookies like this?” She bit into and relished the flavorful treat.
“In retrospect, I’m surprised she didn’t send you boxes of cookies weekly rather than just at holidays,” Lena remarked.
“It was impossible to save more than one or two out of those care packages for myself when they did arrive,” confessed Brietta. “All my friends invariably knew when to show-up on my doorstep.”
This comment led to a sharing of stories between the three generations of law students; and Brietta, when she finally headed up the stairs to her third-story room, was calm, confident, and cheerful. She busied herself by laying out ribbons for the next day and by straightening up her writing desk, which involved the disposal of a week’s worth of junk mail that had accumulated seemingly from out of nowhere. By the time she had washed up and brushed her teeth, her eyelids were getting heavy; and she looked forward to a good night’s sleep and the arrival of another new day with all its opportunities.
This upbeat mood lasted until she had put out the light and crawled between the covers; when she closed her eyes, her late afternoon encounter with Sloan came back in vivid detail. We could start over, he was saying. But Finella’s pretty face intervened, causing Brietta to bury her own face in the pillow while she fought back tears. There was no way to start over with Finella standing between them.

Chapter 6
Garden Party

“I thought we’d never get this party together!” exclaimed Noreen several days before her summer coup: a fashionable alfresco fete. She dropped into a chair next to her husband as he sat relaxing over breakfast, his head behind a newspaper. A cold pitcher of orange juice stood on the table between them, and Noreen helped herself to a glass. “Everything has gone wrong from the moment I decided to do a garden party; it’s as if it wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Maybe the fates are trying to tell you something,” Niles grinned over the top of the paper.
“Well, they don’t know me very well then,” Noreen huffed. “At least the rains have stopped, giving the flowers a chance to come back from that ravishing wind. The gardeners have promised to have the lawns in tiptop shape and the caterers have finally found enough young ponies to wait on our guests. You’d think no one ever entertained in this part of Ponyland.”
Niles lowered the paper, having read the same headline five times and still not quite comprehending what the news story was about. “You’ve got to admit, Noreen, that you’re little garden party has become something of an extravaganza. Let’s see now: You’ve hired musicians to play on the patio, the fountain has been refurbished and now is the home of any number of Japanese carp, flowers have been coaxed and coerced to bloom on schedule– and any that didn’t cooperate were uprooted and replaced, you’ve added several new spruce trees to the already busy lawn, the stringing of lights around every nook and cranny on our entire acreage has rivaled the Christmas lights in Capital City, plus the menu boggles the mind of even Whitehall’s premier chef. Your plans have become a bit extreme.”
“We haven’t done much entertaining lately, and you know it.”
“We’d be in the poor house if you attempted this level of entertaining on a regular basis!”
“What am I supposed to do? For years now, I’d thought that when Sloan finally got around to asking Brietta to marry him, we’d host an engagement party; I’ve been holding all these ideas at bay waiting for that moment. But is it ever going to happen?”
Finding that Noreen was looking at him as if she expected an answer, Niles obliged. “It would appear not.”
“And why not?” asked Noreen. “I’m certainly aware that Sloan– and he gets this from your father– has to have every detail of a new endeavor worked out before he’ll take a step forward, but what is he waiting for now that Brietta is back in Whitehall? We should be grandparents to a whole parcel of little ones by now, Niles!” She practically moaned that last sentiment.
“Now, dear, we can’t live our children’s lives for them; I don’t know what happened between Brietta and Sloan, but something set them at odds with each other years ago...”
“It was that doctor, you know... Finella. Why Sloan took to her when he had Brietta, I’ll never understand.”
“Sloan and Brietta grew up so close together that we assumed they’d get married; but they obviously had other plans. That’s their decision.”
“But they loved one another! And they still do! But our son is playing his cards all wrong. If he doesn’t come forward and offer for Brietta soon, she’ll have gone over to Dorian– and then what is Sloan going to do?”
“Isn’t it possible that Sloan loves Finella?”
Noreen scoffed at the idea. “Watch your son when he’s in a room with both Brietta and Finella; sure, he’ll be attentive to Finella to a fault, but watch his eyes– he always knows exactly what Brietta’s doing, who’s she with, what she’s saying. He’s as infatuated with her as he ever was, but he’s not doing anything about it!”
“What about Brietta? Is she languishing over Sloan?”
“Of course not! She’s too spirited to let any grass grow under her hooves, and who can blame her? A mare that pretty isn’t going to wait for her prince charming forever. Mark my words, Niles... if Sloan doesn’t assert himself where Brietta is concerned pretty soon, he’s going to lose her... and for keeps.”
* * *
On the day of the garden party, a day thankfully free of any clouds in the sky, Noreen was everywhere. She had to oversee the gardeners whom she found did not know the first thing about proper flower care, the lawn crew who refused to understand the most basic concepts of landscaping, the house cleaners who were just as likely to sweep the dirt under the carpeting as not, and the chef and his crew who considered food an art form rather than a basic pony necessity. She was outside, inside, upstairs, and downstairs. And she was constantly muttering, most of this concerning her abandonment by her son and her husband.
Niles had suddenly been hit with a deadline for the architectural plans he had been working on for weeks... at what had seemed to Noreen a leisurely pace. Now, when she needed him, he had gone to his office and locked himself in.
Sloan was no better. A client who was too important to take lightly had invited both him and Dorian on a boating venture to Grand Lake; fishing was involved. Fishing! Hadn’t she made sure there were plenty of fish in the fountain?
Her only consolation was that both stallions had promised that they would appear at the house no later than six o’clock, with the first guests expected to begin arriving by seven-thirty. Noreen smiled. That meant that if she could somehow convince Brietta to come over at six o’clock also, she could set her and Sloan to doing something... something isolated... that would force the two of them to take note of one another and realize that they were meant for each other.
It was already late afternoon, however, she realized, nearly causing palpitations; and she still had not come up with a foolproof plan to get the two ponies in the same place at the same time; but she was not whipped yet. Standing on the patio in the shade afforded by the angle of the sun over the house, Noreen surveyed her kingdom, numerous ponies working like so many ants scurrying about their business. The lawn was trimming up nicely, the flowers were prettily blooming, the lights were being strung to highlight specific areas, the splashing sound of the water lent a calming background, the blue sky promised no rain to spoil the evening. What still needed to be done that Brietta could be sent for to oversee?
Nothing coming to mind, Noreen entered the house and made a bee-line for the kitchen to superintend the food preparations. The chef, studying his menu, shook his head. Noreen immediately expected the worst.
“What is it? You’ve ruined something, haven’t you?”
At the sound of her voice, the chef cringed, having come to learn that Noreen was a force to be reckoned with. He wished he could lock the kitchen door, thus preventing the mistress of the house from circumventing his plans on every front; but that, of course, would certainly earn her ire and cause him instant grief. He had no alternative except to admit the latest fiasco.
“The market sent over the strawberries I ordered,” he said, holding out a piece of red fruit toward Noreen, “and look at the condition they’re in.”
Noreen took the strawberry in her hoof and turned it over. “It’s perfect,” she noted.
“On the outside, maybe,” scoffed the chef, making an impatient gesture. “Cut it open and see what you get.” He matched his actions to his words and sliced the fruit in half, exposing a cavernous hollow within.
Picking up the defective strawberry, Noreen scowled. “This is the best they have to offer?”
“Have no doubt that I have already called to express my displeasure,” the chef remarked. “That green grocer had the audacity to tell me that these berries are top of the line, for this late in the season.”
“Well, I suppose you’ll have to make do then.”
“Make do? I, Chef Henri, make do?” the exasperated stallion slapped the counter with his hoof, effectively mashing the halved strawberry. “I never make do!”
“How important were the strawberries?” asked Noreen.
“As this is a garden party, fruits and flowers were to be my theme ingredients,” Chef Henri stated.
“What else is in season?”
“Gooseberries, I suppose, but they wouldn’t work with my plans. I need the red color of strawberries.” He thought a moment. “Of course, there are cherries, but they are rather tart. Or possibly blueberries.”
“What about raspberries?” asked Noreen, suddenly inspired.
“Their flavor is more uncustomary, harder to blend,” debated Chef Henri.
“What if I could get you some raspberries so fresh they’d still be warm from the sunshine and so sweet that you’d think they were sugared?” Noreen countered, already moving toward the telephone.
“I could garnish the hors d’oeuvres and even make a pleasing sauce...” The chef was immersed in the possibilities.
As Noreen listened to the ringing of the telephone, she tapped her hoof impatiently on the counter. It was nearly time for Niles and Sloan to return home. If she sent Brietta straight to the raspberry patch that the foals had marauded summer after summer while they were growing up, the mare should arrive almost at the same time as Sloan would... once Noreen had sent him to assist. For one of the few times in her life, Noreen was grateful that her one and only child was by habit so infuriatingly punctual.
Once Anna had summoned Brietta to take the call, Noreen dived right in, explaining the unforeseen emergency that was creating a crisis of some magnitude in the chef’s domain; and would Brietta, at this late hour, be so kind as to help Noreen out by visiting the old raspberry patch down by the cabin ruins where she and Sloan used to haunt?
“Why, if it’s that important, of course I will,” Brietta responded, wildly wondering how she could make herself presentable for the summer party of the year after having been scratched by the raspberry vines and soaked in her own sweat by the work involved.
Noreen was ahead of her. “Throw any do-dads you may need in a bag and you can bathe and dress here. The hour is late, and time is of the essence.”
“Okay, Noreen. I won’t let you down.”
Hanging up the phone, Brietta groaned. She had been looking forward to this evening as a pleasant summer interlude, not as a scratchy and uncomfortable trek through the overgrown acres that backed Niles property. Setting off through the acres of tall grass, random bushes, and sheltering trees was one thing when a young pony was with her best friends, quite another for a supposedly mature mare to undertake by herself with only a few hours remaining before she was supposed to be sweet-smelling and properly coiffured.
After gathering together the items she would need to transform herself from farmer’s daughter to diva, Brietta said goodbye to her mother who frowningly questioned the sense in having her daughter involved in such a venture– even if it was Lena’s best friend doing the asking– and only succeeding in convincing her to wear a bandana over her head. Lena watched, shaking her head, as her daughter swept off in the direction of the berry patch, basket in hoof.
Following the path until it neared Niles property, then cutting off across the open field, Brietta found the walk soothing to her rather riled equilibrium. She enjoyed seeing the countryside that had harbored Sloan, Shayla, and herself through many a long summer day when they were young and life was simple. The warm sun put a brightness on the scene that mirrored Brietta’s own light mood now that she was now a part of the pastoral setting, and she silently thanked Noreen for giving her the opportunity to experience such a peaceful interlude.
Keeping in mind Noreen’s words that time was of the essence, Brietta did not lag as she crossed grassy areas dotted with wild flowers or passed under cooling shade trees until she came upon the nearly covered remains of what had once been a log cabin, long since abandoned. The pony who had once lived here had established a raspberry patch that had continued to thrive long after the equine inhabitants of the homestead had moved on to new pastures.
Working her way around the perimeter of the rotted lumber of the dwelling, Brietta was soon met with a tangled snarl of berry bushes, quite loaded with large, luscious fruit. After tasting a berry, then another, and still more, Brietta, satisfied that the fruit would suit even Chef Henri, settled down to serious picking, her hooves busy while her mind wandered back to other feeding frenzies by three vivacious foals with an insatiable appetite for nature’s bounty.
When the berries had been ripe on the vine, Shayla, Sloan, and Brietta inevitably found their way to the old cabin surrounded by the prickly but beneficent bushes. The moldy, rotting wood which lay about the site had been an attraction for snakes and other creepy, crawly things, and Brietta had more than once run to Sloan for protection from the perceived evil of a slithering reptile. The memory made her shiver, and she looked closely at the ground before choosing a spot to stand from which she could reach a sufficient amount of berries. Perching her basket safely next to her, she began to pluck the purplish-red, sun-ripened fruit from the stems.
The wild area around her was silent as she started, but soon the song of a bird ruptured the air as a feathered creature decided to accept the presence of a little pony as nothing dangerous. It was not long before other birds joined in, and Brietta took for granted the various noises of leaves brushing against branches and the occasional snapping of twigs in the underbrush. It was conducive to pleasant recollections.
Grinning over the time that Shayla, always ready to instigate an adventure but not always brave enough to carry it through, had suggested that the three of them carry their freshly picked basket of berries to the nearest tree which had such conveniently low branches just begging the foals to climb into its heights and scurry up into a secret world above the ordinary. All three of them had safely made the assent to a pleasurably frightening height and had settled comfortably on their own branch and had begun to eat their hard-won berries when Shayla, reaching for her share, had lost her balance; in the ensuing struggle to maintain a hold on the rough bark, she had upset the basket of berries, spilling them in a torrent to the ground below, converting them to a mushy and unappetizing paste. Brietta had blamed Shayla for ruining their afternoon of work while Sloan had looked at the bright side– Shayla had saved herself from a nasty tumble from the tree, the berries being a small price to pay for their friend’s safety. Brietta had finally reluctantly agreed.
Another time, Colin had snuck up on the three of them as they busily engaged in berry-picking and story telling, eventually bursting out of his cover as if he was some huge, menacing bear. Shayla and Brietta had both dived for cover behind Sloan, who– thankfully– assessed the situation for what it was and stood his ground. Colin had been properly upbraided.
In real time, Brietta’s basket was beginning to fill with the plump and juicy berries, but she picked on, not wanting to disappoint Chef Henri or Noreen. The watch strapped to her foreleg informed her that time was fast running down, and she determined that at exactly seven o’clock, she would set off for Noreen’s house which would be easily accessible once she was out of the bushes that soon fed into the back lawn of Nile’s estate.
There was one memory tied to this place that Brietta had tried hard to avoid; but now as the loneliness of her location began to make her feel assailable, she found herself reliving the episode unbidden. It had been when she and Sloan were in high school– she a first year student and he a senior– and they had come without Shayla although that filly was to join them at some point in the course of the afternoon. Sloan and Brietta had dallied on their way across the pasture, allowing time for Shayla to catch up to them; but the errands she had to run for her mother were taking her longer than expected.
When Sloan and Brietta had arrived at the berry patch, Sloan had determined that they should wait for Shayla before they started feasting on the berries; but Brietta had not agreed. So while Sloan made himself comfortable under a nearby tree, Brietta had filled her basket. When she had a good amount of berries and Shayla had still not arrived, Brietta had gone to sit near the reclining stallion, now half asleep in the somnolent mood of the woodland. She nibbled on the berries, enjoying the companionable silence until she had become bored with no one to talk to.
She began a subtle assault on Sloan by throwing grass blades at him, but their feather-light touch did not faze him. She followed by plucking flower heads off the tiny sweet clover that grew amidst the grass and sending them his way, but still no response. Contemplating using the berries at her disposal to barrage him, she gave up that idea; the berries were too tasty to waste. Setting her basket aside, she moved closer to the stallion and ran her hoof against his mane, fully intending to pull a strand hard enough to awaken him. She should have foreseen the outcome of her touch; but in her innocence, she had not. She was fully unprepared for the effect it caused.
It happened so fast that later when she looked back on it, she was unsure of what had actually occurred. All she could be sure of was that Sloan had awakened; and before she could react, his foreleg had reached out for her, drawing her against him where he lay. He had lifted his head and looked at her with such a fire in his eyes that she had been frightened, and slowly his lips had lowered to meet hers.
Shayla’s entrance on the scene shattered the moment. With a return to his usual calm assurance, Sloan had moved away from Brietta; and with a gasp, she had scuttled away from him. Never in their relationship had there ever been anything more than a comfortable companionship between them; now, in a moment, Brietta had come to realize that they had entered a more complicated connection. Never again did they return– physically or emotionally– to the berry patch by the cabin. The remembrance of the feelings that had engulfed them seemed to draw a line between them that could never again be crossed.
“Brie!”
The sound of her voice being hailed from a close distance brought Brietta back to her task; she looked up, startled to see Dorian coming toward her through the bushes. Her involuntary jump caused the berry basket to totter, and she just managed to salvage her laboriously obtained berries.
“Dorian! What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same thing,” he grinned. “I’d have thought you’d be all primped and prettied and pacing the floor, waiting for me to pick you up.”
“I wish!” Brietta held out the basket of berries and accepted Dorian’s hoof to steady her as she pried herself lose from the grasping berry branches. “Noreen and her chef were left in the lurch by the green grocer, and she needed my help to save the day.”
“You’re a loyal friend, aren’t you?” The stallion picked off some twigs and leaves that were stuck in Brietta’s mane. “And you look so domestic. Will you be working in the kitchen this evening as well?”
“If I don’t get these to Noreen immediately, there will be no party... if her distress when she called me was any indication.” The mare picked up her backpack and set off toward the house with Dorian at her side. Pulling the bandana from her head and using it to dab at her face, she added, “And what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Well, you’re aware that Sloan and I went off on a day trip to Grand Lake at the invitation of a stallion we do business with...”
“Rob Dawson.”
“Yes... and, as it turned out, we had a great go of it and sort of lost track of time so that we couldn’t get back to Whitehall for Sloan to meet his mother’s schedule. And to top it off, Rob decided that he needed some further advice from Sloan and wanted him to stop at his office before going home. You know Sloan... he wouldn’t disappoint a client; so he sent me on my way while he took care of business.”
Brietta looked at him curiously. “If you were coming from Grand Lake, you’d have come from the northern route, not the eastern.”
Looking miffed, Dorian unwillingly admitted, “I took the wrong path at one of the junctures and ended up at some God-forsaken place east of here...”
“Elmborough.”
“Yeah, country girl... and by the time I realized where I was, I figured I might as well come straight here.”
“You don’t look like you spent the day on the lake and traveling,” Brietta noted with a sideways glance at her companion.
“Rob’s got a great little cottage on the lake with all the amenities. And what about you? Do you have to go back to Whitehall Place before the party? Not that you need to, mind ya’. You look very attractive with your hair all tousled about and those little tendrils curling around the sweat on your forehead and the berry smudges on your cheeks...”
“Thank you very much for your critique of my appearance,” Brietta growled. The two had broken through to Niles’ backyard by this point, and Brietta grabbed the basket of berries from Dorian’s hoof. “And thanks for your help.” She turned her back on him and hurried toward the house.
“Oh. And you have cockleburs stuck in your tail,” Dorian called out.
An aggrieved flick of that tail was the only response the stallion received, and Brietta cringed under his laughter.
Upon entering the kitchen with her hard won fruit, Brietta found that Chef Henri was ecstatic with the raspberries; he quickly set several of his assistants to work readying them for use. Of Noreen, there was no sign. Brietta wondered about this, knowing how agitated the mare had been earlier. She met her in the hallway, however, as she was working her way up to the guest room that Noreen had put at her disposal.
“The raspberries are luscious,” Brietta informed the mare.
“Raspberries?” Noreen nearly shrieked. “Do you realize that Sloan called me not ten minutes after I talked to you and informed me that he wasn’t going to make it here until nine o’clock at the earliest? Do you know what that did to my plans? And then to see you come back accompanied by Dorian, of all ponies? Raspberries, indeed!” The tempestuous mare stalked off, her aggrieved hoofsteps echoing down the hallway.
Brietta watched her marching off and shook her head. What was that all about? At a loss, Brietta continued to her destination.
Locking the door behind her, Brietta breathed a sigh of relief. She was overly warm, tired, dirty, itchy, and– at this precise moment– fed up with acts of kindness. Dumping the contents of her backpack on the bed, she retrieved her soap and shampoo and disappeared in the bathroom to shower and coax her hair into something more appropriate than the wild abandonment that it now displayed.
She grimaced as she saw her reflection in the mirror; Dorian had reason to taunt her over her looks. She turned to the side and pulled the clinging cockleburs from her tail, holding the offending seedpods in her hoof in disdain as she pondered burying them in Dorian’s mane at some point during the evening– after all, it was a garden party– but finally tossing them into the wastebasket just to be rid of them.
In the process of curling her hair, Brietta, now refreshed by the shower, heard a tap at her chamber door. Ignoring it, she continued to fuss with her mane; she wondered if Dorian would have the gall to search her out in the family’s private quarters– she would not put it past him; he probably had some more taunts to throw at her. But the knock sounded again, accompanied by a feminine voice. Brietta grinned and immediately crossed the room to admit Shayla.
“Lena and Aiden arrived, and Lena was worried about you. I told her I’d look you up,” Shayla explained, coming in and sitting carefully on a bedside chair. “Without you or Sloan, the party seems flat.”
“Where’s Derry?”
“He got in a sports discussion with a bunch of the guys,” Shayla shrugged.
“And I suppose without Flynn shadowing you, you feel lost,” Brietta mused.
“My parents have him tonight, so he’ll be a terror.” She ran her hoof over the stretching skin of her abdomen. “And this one is determined to party as hard as the best of them.”
“Active little thing, huh?” Brietta said, trying to imagine what it would be like to be carrying a precious new life within one.
“He or she is trying to keep up to Flynn already,” grinned the expectant mother. After a pause she continued, “Just what went on this afternoon that you ended up getting ready for the party here?”
“Didn’t Mother tell you?”
“No. She was within Noreen’s hearing, and I got the impression that she didn’t want to talk in front of her.”
“Mother wasn’t too happy when Noreen called at the last minute to ask my help in something.”
“What was that?”
“She asked me to go to that old raspberry patch to pick some berries.”
“What?!”
“It seems that some of Chef Henri’s dishes were in need of fresh fruit, and nothing was available to meet his standards; what could I do?”
“You could have told her to send one of the gardeners,” pointed out Shayla.
“Well, you now Noreen. She can kind of go off on her own tangents sometimes, so I thought it best to humor her. And besides, it wasn’t so awfully bad, except that...”
“Except what?” queried the inquisitive Shayla, leaning forward to catch any details.
“Dorian, of all ponies, came across me looking like some wayward peasant; and he found that sight hilarious.”
“Oh, is that all?” Shayla settled more comfortably once again. “I suppose you did look sort of earthy. Remember how our moms would roll their eyes over our looks when we’d come in after a day roughing it?”
“Sloan never complained.”
“Sloan was Sloan,” Shayla said, as if that explained everything. Then she grinned wide. “You should have seen how you looked that day I caught him kissing...”
“He didn’t kiss me!” Brietta snapped.
“Whatever. It looked like he was kissing you.”
“I suppose he would have if you hadn’t stumbled into the clearing just then,” Brietta admitted softly.
“The two of you must have had many other opportunities.”
Patting the last curl in place, Brietta turned to her friend. “Sloan made sure that we never had such a chance again.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“But remember, he was always admonished by both our parents to act as my guardian from the time we were toddlers– ‘Make sure Brietta doesn’t get hurt. Make sure Brietta doesn’t fall. Make sure Brietta doesn’t get left behind.’ He was always expected to be my protector, to keep me safe. He couldn’t cross that line, even if he wanted to. It would have let too many ponies down. He took chivalry very seriously.” Something became very clear to Brietta in that moment. “Maybe that’s why he turned to Finella; no one expected him to be governed by scruples where she was concerned.”
Shayla had no reply.
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