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My Little Pony Monthly Issue 78 (September 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 78
September 2003
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Index

1. Contest!
2. Survey!
3. The Triumvirate (hah hah, and it’s the third in the list! Cool!) (by Clever Clover)
4. Whitewhirl (by Sugarberry and Tabby)
5. A New Nemesis? (by Tabby)
6. Moving On, Looking Back (by Sugarberry)
7. Silent are the Bells Chapters 7-9 (by Sugarberry)
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Contest!

Congratulations to everyone who participated!

C. A. Loewen (cloewen@superpa.net)
Jaye (eightiestoyboy@yahoo.ca)
Jenn (FairySelene@yahoo.com)
Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net)
Violet Star Shine (violet_star_shine@yahoo.com)

Honorable Mentions

Kathy (jykle2@yahoo.com)
Moon Lightning (kangamanda@juno.com)

It turns out that the last question was a little trickier than I had expected. Some of you were trapped into answering “Yum Yum”– close, but Yum Yum was the flutter from the Birthday Party Gift Set. From the Slumber Party Gift Set, however, it was Pink Dreams. Pink Dreams is one of the few ponies with a cat symbol so, of course, one of the editor’s favorites! Will this question be as hard?

True or false: Peachy was one of the original six My Little Ponies.

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!

Here we have another decent bunch of answers to our last survey question on your most sentimental pony!

Jaye (eightiestoyboy@yahoo.ca) says...

There are several in my collection with great sentimental value, including Moonstone (my first pony), Gusty, Fizzy, Flutterbye, and Princess Tiffany. But I think the most important one to me is Dancing Butterflies, because my mother found her for me. :-)

Jenn (FairySelene@yahoo.com) says...
Baby Glory, she was my very first

Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net) says...
I already mentioned her in the last survey! It would have to be my MIB Baby Glory. She was my favorite when I was growing up- still is- and I've been searching for her still in the box for a few years now. The one I finally managed to find is from Europe, so her story is actually in German. I'm thrilled to have finally found her!

Friendly (GedHix@aol.com) says...
My most sentimental pony is my flat foot Blue Belle.

Barnacle (Raptor@nematodemail.com) says...
Equally between Barnacle and Baby Leaper, because they are the only ponies I own.

Let’s keep those responses coming in!

Are you selective in what ponies you collect, or do you want them all? Explain. Must be in proper essay form, at least three paragraphs long, with a well-developed thesis statement.

*smacks head* Sorry! Just one week of school has already corrupted my brain. Ignore my Seton-induced cruelties in regards to survey answers. The URL is:


http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm
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The Triumvirate
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)

It was a hot, dry day in Friendship Gardens. Morning Glory wiped the sweat from her brow as she walked home from the florist shop where she worked. Even late in the afternoon, the heat was oppressive. She paused on her doorstep and surveyed the horizon. “I wish we would get a little breeze and some clouds at least. If this keeps up, Friendship Gardens will become Friendship Desert.”

She opened the front door and noticed an envelope that had apparently been slipped under the door. She picked up the envelope and turned it over, but there was no writing on it to indicate who it might be from. “That’s odd. I wonder if I have a secret admirer. Not that I’m interested in that sort of thing anymore.” She stepped inside and closed the door.

Morning Glory sat down in the air-conditioned comfort of her living room with a tall glass of ice tea. She took a long sip from her glass, then turned her attention to the mysterious envelope. Inside was a single leaf of paper with the following words scrawled in elegant calligraphy:

Princess Morning Glory,

Your presence is formally requested at Malachite Castle at your earliest possible convenience to discus a matter of some urgency. Please make all haste.

Sincerely

Foxglove

Stewardess of Malachite Castle

“That’s odd, I thought Raven usually sent out these invitations. Oh well, I guess he must have been busy, probably something to do with this ‘matter of some urgency’. I’ll have to call work and tell them I’ll be out for a week or so.”

Morning Glory spent the rest of the evening packing for her trip. The next morning she set out at the crack of dawn, before the heat of the day could set in. “At least I won’t have to worry about freezing to death like last time... especially since I won’t have Clever Clover with me.”

* * *
Lucas, the messenger pony, pedaled his bicycle through the early morning haze. Like Morning Glory, he sought to avoid the mid-day heat. And the message he carried was urgent. He had ridden from Port Scurvy since well before dawn to reach Friendship Garden. Now, just as Morning Glory disappeared over the horizon, Lucas coasted to a stop in front of her house. “Hm, it’s awfully early yet. I hope she isn’t too cranky for being woken at this hour. But Officer Key said this was a top priority message.” He knocked on the door, but there was no one there to answer.

* * *
The excavation in the Crystal Desert being over, Belle Star and Clever Clover were on there way back to Friendship Gardens via Port Scurvy. The cruise from Port Cactus to Port Scurvy was the quickest route, unless one wanted to spring for air-fare, which neither of the archaeologists could afford. Belle Star was enjoying the cruise greatly, and would often reminisce of her days with the Pony Sea Patrol.

Clever Clover was also enjoying himself. It was nice to relax for a while with no worries. And he looked forward to being home again with the rest of his friends, his Vulpix (Pixie), Minoko, Morning Glory, Ryo, and the rest. But he had enjoyed the chance to get away from them all for a while. When he was with Belle Star, he didn’t have to worry nearly as much as with the others. Minoko, with her jealousy and fiery temper, could be quite dangerous, even when she didn’t mean to be. And Morning Glory was always reminding him of his duties as Prince and Regent. Strangely, though, he missed them as much for their faults as their virtues.

The ship sailed gracefully into the harbor of Port Scurvy. Clever Clover had hoped that they would have left the heat of the desert behind them, but here it was not only hot but also humid. As they debarked, Clever Clover searched the docks for Minoko, who was supposed to be performing community service while Clever Clover was away in the Crystal Desert, but she was nowhere to be seen. Clever Clover and Belle Star walked to Key’s office near the docks. There they found the blue Sea Patrol pony behind her desk with a most unhappy look on her face.

“Hey Key, what’s wrong?” Belle Star asked her long-time friend.

“Oh, quite a bit. A couple of weeks ago Minoko up and disappeared, but before I had time to do anything about it I got called away to Port Cactus. I just got back last night.”

“Oh! You were in Port Cactus? You could have given us a ride home!”

“What do you mean, Minoko went missing? What happened?”

“Well, she was staying here, in the cell. One night I brought Ryo by so she could have some company. She seemed to have a lot on her mind that night, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. The next morning I found Ryo alone, crying in the cell. I sent word to Morning Glory in Friendship Gardens, but she never got back to me.”

“She left but she didn’t take Ryo with her? She can’t be planning to be gone long, then.”

“I hope not. If she goes on a rampage after escaping from my watch, it could ruin my career.”

“That’s not all she could ruin. Belle Star and I will go back to Friendship Gardens and see if there’s any sign of her there and find out why Morning Glory didn’t answer. It’s not like her to, ah, you know, not do what you expect her to do.”

Morning Glory was three days gone before Clever Clover and Belle Star made it back to Friendship Gardens.

* * *
It took Morning Glory a total of four days to reach the Green Lake of the Isle. She had expected to find someone waiting for her on the shore of the lake like last time, but there was no one. She proceeded to walk around the lake for any signs of a greeting party, but there was none. Just as she was about to give up hope, she saw a small boat out on the lake with two ponies in it. She waved her forehooves frantically in the air to get their attention. Before long they noticed her and rowed over to the shore.

“Can we help you?” asked one of the ponies.

“Yes, I am Princess Morning Glory and I was summoned to Malachite Castle, but no one came to take me across the lake.”

“Your Highness! We’ll be more than happy to take you across the lake. It’d be an honor, as a matter of fact!”

“Oh, why thank you, my good ponies.”

It did not take long for the small boat to cross the lake. As one of the boatponies helped Morning Glory ashore he said, “Would you like someone to escort you to the castle, princess?”

“Oh, no thank you. I’m sure I can find my way. Thank you for the offer, though.”

She made her way through the woods toward the valley where the village and Malachite Castle lay. She found the village exactly as she remembered it, but at the castle gate there was no one to greet her. She knocked on the heavy wooden gate. Shortly, the gate swung open a crack.

Ironwood, captain of the royal guard, poked his head through the gate. “Princess Morning Glory! What a pleasant surprise!” He swung the gate open wide. “Do come in. I will send word to Foxglove of your arrival at once.”

“Pardon me, but why is it such a surprise? I received an invitation.”

“You did? No one told me anything about it. Who sent the invitation? It is a serious breech of protocol to invite someone to the castle without informing the captain of the guard.”

“Well, it was signed by Foxglove. I hope she won’t be in any trouble.”

“Foxglove? Are you certain? I’m sure she would have told me about something like this. Come on. Let’s go ask her about this invitation.”

Ironwood led Morning Glory to Foxglove’s office. “M’lady Foxglove. You have a visitor.”

“Oh? I wonder who that could be.” Foxglove turned from her desk to greet her guest. “Ah, Morning Glory, how nice to see you again! What brings you to the Isle today?”

“Why, you invited me.”

“What? I didn’t send you any invitation.”

“But I received an invitation signed by you. I have it here with me.” Morning Glory took out the envelope and handed it to Foxglove. The stewardess took the envelope and examined its contents.

“It appears to be a blank piece of paper to me.”

“What! But I know what I saw!”

Foxglove returned the blank paper to the envelope. “Ironwood, take this to Magus at once. Something foul is afoot.”

Morning Glory gasped. “Do you mean…someone deceived me?”

“I’m afraid so. But until Magus has had a chance to study the evidence, there is nothing for us to do and no need for us to worry. It is always a happy occasion when one of our royal ponies from Friendship Gardens is with us. Come, I’m sure Oak and Gooseberry will be happy to see you.”

* * *
Back in Friendship Gardens, Clever Clover and Belle Star were investigating the disappearance of Minoko and Morning Glory. Clever Clover knocked on Morning Glory’s door, but no one was there to answer.

“What do we do now?” asked Belle Star.

Clever Clover shook his head. “I guess we could ask down at the florist shop to see when was the last time they heard from her.” So the two ponies walked down to the florist shop where Morning Glory worked.

“She called a few days ago and said she had some urgent business at Malachite Castle,” explained Poppy, one of Morning Glory’s co-workers. “She said she’d be back in a week or two.”

“That’s strange; normally I’m the one they call with urgent business.”

“Well, since we were on the boat to Port Scurvy a couple of days ago,” said Belle Star, “they wouldn’t have been able to mail you an invitation.”

“Yeah, but there would have been one waiting for me at home. Or if it was really urgent, Magus could have teleported me from the boat right to the Isle.”

“Maybe it’s something to do with her family. They wouldn’t need you for that.”

“Good point. Still, it doesn’t feel quite right. I wish they had telephones or e-mail on the Isle. I’d hate to have to walk all the way there only to find out it was all a personal matter.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“We know what happened to Morning Glory; now we just have to find Minoko. She left Ryo and her ship so she can’t have gone far. She wasn’t back at my place, so where else could she be?”

Belle Star pondered the question for a moment. “Maybe she was kidnaped!”

“Kidnaped? Do you know anyone who would be capable of kidnaping Minoko?”

“No, I guess not. Unless she had been drinking a lot of Lady Moonshine’s ‘tea’.”

“I think Key would have mentioned it if Lady Moonshine had dropped off a batch of her ‘tea’ for Minoko. Hm, I wonder if this could be some kind of scheme. Her idea of playing hard-to-get.”

“Well, if it is, she’s doing a very good job of it. We can’t even find her, let alone get her.”

“Ah, right. I think for the time being it would be best to just go about our lives as normal. If there is some trouble at the Isle, they’ll send word soon enough. And if Minoko is just fooling around, she’ll get bored once we stop fretting over her.”

“All right, if you think that’s best.”

“Yeah. And Belle Star, be on the lookout.”

* * *
Back on the Isle, Morning Glory sat down to tea with the king and queen. “This whole business with your mysterious invitation is rather disturbing,” said King Oak. “I’m glad to have you here, but I wish it could have been under better circumstances.”

Morning Glory forced a smile. “Yes, well, it is probably all just a prank. Clever Clover should be back from the Crystal Desert by now; Minoko probably wanted me out of the way for a while so she could be alone with him.”

“I hope that’s all it is,” said Queen Gooseberry.

Ironwood entered and bowed. “Your highnesses, Foxglove had me take the invitation that Princess Morning Glory brought with her to the Magus so he could study it, but he is nowhere to be found. That in itself is not unusual; but considering the circumstances, I thought it best to let you know.”

“Yes, thank you, Ironwood. Did you show the invitation to Enchantment? If she doesn’t know where Magus is, she may be able to divine something from the invitation.”

“I’m afraid she is missing also.”

The king shook his head. “Well, that is the way of wizards. There is no reason to fear the worst, but I want your guards on full alert, Ironwood.”

“Yes, your highness.” Ironwood bowed and exited.

“I hope Enchantment is all right,” said Morning Glory.

Queen Gooseberry smiled. “I’m sure she is fine. As my husband said, ‘that is the way of wizards.’ They aren’t around when you want them, but when you need them. If anything, their absence should be taken as a good sign.”

“But then again,” came a voice from the shadows, “their absence could be taken as an opportunity.” The menacing figure of Nightshade stepped into the light.

“The sort of opportunity my old master never thought to take advantage of.” Hemlock appeared in a plume of smoke.

“But the old master is the least of your worries now!” Minoko rose up through the floor.

Oak jumped to his hooves and tried to shield Gooseberry and Morning Glory from the intruders. “What is the meaning of this!”

Hemlock faced the king. “We are the Triumvirate of the Night Clan. And the meaning of this is our claiming our rightful place as the leaders of our ponies.”

“And you think the ponies will just bow down and accept you as their rulers?”

“My good king, they won’t have any choice. Sister, take them to the dungeon with the rest of them.”

“Yes, brother.” Nightshade drew her sword. “Now move, before I have to use this.”

As Nightshade escorted them to the dungeon, Morning Glory called out, “Minoko! Now that you’ve shown your true face, Clever Clover will never love you! He will defeat you!”

Minoko glared at the princess as she disappeared down the hallway.

“Don’t listen to her,” said Hemlock. “She is just trying to turn us against each other.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Come, let us go to the throne room and take our rightful place.”

“That’s not what you came here for. You may sit yourself on the throne, but that won’t make you king.”

“True, but for the time being I do not want to reveal my true intentions to our enemies. Remember, the most dangerous are still unaccounted for.”

“Do you mean Clever Clover, Magus, or the little girl?”

“Take your pick. With my sister on our side, they are little real threat. The only real danger is underestimating any of them.”

* * *
Not far from the parlor where the three royal ponies had shared tea, behind a secret panel, Ironwood listened to the exchange between Minoko and Hemlock. “I’ve got to get out of here and warn Clever Clover!” The guardpony slipped away into the dark, hidden passages of the castle.

* * *
The dungeon was dark and damp. Along with King Oak, Queen Gooseberry, and Princess Morning Glory were imprisoned Raven, Foxglove, and Archbishop Vin. The castle guards and servants were locked in other cells. “You fiends!” cried out Oak. “This dungeon is no place for a lady! If you are to hold us prisoner, at least give the women the dignity of decent quarters! As for myself, I can take whatever you have in store for me; but do not make them suffer along with me!”

Nightshade peered into the cell. “There’s no need to bellow. I can hear your whispers from anywhere within this castle. And as for the women, I thought you’d appreciate being able to watch over them. I know how protective you heroic types can be.”

“In that case, you can take us all to better quarters. The royal suite is spacious enough for us all and easy enough for you to keep watch on, especially if your senses are as keen as you claim.”

“Your, ahem, highness, you are in no position to be dictating terms. You will have whatever accommodations the Triumvirate decides. And for your information, you are fortunate we are a Triumvirate. If I’d had my way, you’d all be in stocks.”

The king glared at his captor as she disappeared into the shadows. “She is the worst of the lot. I’d rather be facing Jack O Lantern himself or even Bic the imp.”

Gooseberry shook her head. “Oh, don’t say that. For as many years as that imp held our people in terror, I can’t let myself believe she can be worse than that.”

“Forgive me, my dear. I’m just frustrated. Those three hooligans march right into our home and take it from us! And there was nothing we could do about it! It is infuriating!”

“At least Clever Clover is still free,” spoke up Morning Glory. “And I don’t think they got Ironwood.”

Raven nodded. “True. There is hope. Though how long can we expect it to take? Clever Clover has no reason to suspect any problem here, and it would take Ironwood days to reach him and days to return. But one thing above all bothers me; what do they hope to gain by taking over the castle? They know the ponies will never accept their rule. They must have a hidden agenda.”

“I wonder if it could have something to do with the absence of the Magus?” inquired Vin. “Perhaps they lured him away so that they could access something in his laboratory.”

“If that were the case, this shadow pony could have slipped in even while Magus was here and taken it,” countered the king.

“What if it’s something that can’t be taken? Maybe Hemlock has to be here to do whatever he plans to do with it. It could take days to set up and perform some complex ritual. He’d need us out of the way for that.”

“Could it be!” exclaimed Raven. “The most precious relic our ancestors left us is the Chamber of the Regents! You don’t suppose he is somehow going to tap into the Power of the Regents?”

Morning Glory was confused. “What is the Power of the Regents?”

“It is a myth,” replied Vin.

Raven nodded. “A legendary power that could only be wielded by the seven Regents and only if they acted in total unison.”

“But it was supposed to be a protective power,” added Gooseberry. “A power that unified the ponies.”

“And that is what Nightshade seeks to do,” said Oak. “Unify the people under his rule.”

“But there are other legends,” said Vin. “There was supposed to be a counter to the power. Something to keep the Regents from abusing the power.”

“Oh? What was it?” asked Morning Glory.

Vin shook his head. “The legends do not say, exactly. I have my suspicions, but I think for the time being, the less said, the better.”

King Oak grinned. “I agree. But if you are thinking what I’m thinking, then there is more hope than there at first appeared.”

* * *
Ironwood nearly collapsed from exhaustion when he arrived at Clever Clover’s door two days later. He knocked, but no one answered. He sat down on the doorstep, gasping for breath. “He’ll have to come back sooner or later. I’ll just catch my breath and wait for him.”

* * *
For two days Clever Clover had went about business as usual, which, when he was between jobs, amounted to going for walks and just hanging out. Whenever he was alone, he expected Minoko to materialize out of the scenery and throw her forelegs around him, but she never did. He met up with Belle Star after her part-time job at the market, and the two walked toward Clever Clover’s home for supper. “Still no insights on Minoko?” Clever Clover asked.

“No. I’m starting to worry. Maybe we should go to the Isle. Maybe Minoko went there with Morning Glory.”

“That seems unlikely. Hey, who’s that sitting on my doorstep?”

Ironwood leapt to his hooves. “My prince! I’ve most troubling news!”

Belle Star and Clever Clover rushed to hear Ironwood’s tale. But Ironwood was almost too exhausted yet to speak.

“Forgive me, my prince, but I have run for two days straight. Could you spare some food and water?”

“Sure. And let’s get in out of this heat.”

Clever Clover and Belle Star helped Ironwood into the house and set him on the living room couch. “Belle Star, get him a glass of water. I’ll find something for him to eat.”

A short time later, Ironwood was refreshed himself with food and drink. “Thank you for your hospitality, my prince. But as I said before, I’ve most troubling news.”

“You just rest. It won’t do any good if you pass out before you finish. Besides, Belle Star and I haven’t even had supper yet. You take a nap and you can give us the news over enchiladas later.”

“My prince, you are too kind.” Ironwood closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.

“Do you think his news has something to do with Minoko?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ll start supper; you call Key; she’ll probably want to hear this.”

“Right!” Belle Star rushed off to her apartment to call her one-time partner in the Sea Patrol while Clever Clover made for the kitchen.

Just as Clever Clover was putting the enchiladas in the oven, Belle Star returned, wearing the sash and sword of the Pony Sea Patrol. “Key says she’ll be right over!”

“I don’t know if she can make it in half an hour, but I made enough for her just in case. How’s Ironwood doing?”

Belle Star tip-toed into the living room so as not to disturb the sleeping guardpony. “He’s sleeping like a baby.”

“I hope we’ll be able to wake him up by the time Key arrives.”

The two friends waited eagerly for the enchiladas to finish baking. To pass the time, they played a hand of Go Fish. The time passed quickly; and before they knew it, the enchiladas were ready. As Clever Clover got them out of the oven, Ironwood sat bolt upright on the couch.

“What smells so good?”

“Supper... cheese and onion enchiladas.”

Ironwood, showing no sign of fatigue, rushed to the table. “I have no idea what enchiladas are, but they sure smell good!”

Belle Star was already seated, fork and knife in hoof. Clever Clover set the food on the table. “Now, if Key were here we’d be set, but it will take her a bit longer to get here from Port Scurvy. We might as well start eating.” Just as the prince began to serve up the food, there was a knock on the door. “I wonder who that could be? You two dig in. I’ll see who’s at the door.”

Clever Clover opened the door and found, to his surprise, Key. “How did you get here so fast?”

“I used the Sea Patrol’s latest search and rescue vehicle.” The dark blue pony pointed to a hot-air balloon moored to a nearby tree. “With that, we should be able to get to the Isle in less than a day.”

“Cool! I just got supper on. Why don’t you come in and have a bite to eat while Ironwood fills us in on the situation.”

As the ponies ate their meal, Ironwood filled them in on the events that had transpired at the castle. (And for those of you who weren’t paying attention, after Morning Glory arrived, Magus and Enchantment were nowhere to be found and Hemlock, Nightshade, and Minoko, calling themselves the Triumvirate of the Night Clan, locked everyone in the dungeon except for Ironwood who slipped away to warn Clever Clover.) “And this all happened over two days ago. It almost killed me to get here in that time. I don’t know if we’ll be able to get back in time to do any good.”

“Don’t worry about that,” said Key. “Thanks to the Sea Patrol, we’ll be there, and fully rested, before nightfall tomorrow!”

Ironwood’s face brightened. “Really! Then there is still hope! I only wish I could have gotten my spear before I left the castle. Without it, I won’t be much use in a fight.”

“Nonsense,” said Clever Clover. “You’re a fair fencer and I collect swords. I’m sure you’ll find one in my collection that’s to you liking.”

“Great. I’ll prepare the balloon for launch while you guys get ready for the fight. Belle Star, want to give me a hoof?”

“Sure thing, Key.”

The ponies went about their duties and soon were on their way to the Isle of the Green Lake, and Malachite Castle.

* * *
Minoko stood in the Hall of Kings in front of the portrait of a king from long ago, one of the few unicorn kings in the hall. He had a stern, intimidating expression on his face, but the image somehow put Minoko at ease. The unicorn king was holding a weapon, as were all the kings, but his was unique. Rather than a sword, or axe, or other blade, he held a simple staff. While she stood mesmerized by the painting, Hemlock walked up beside her.

“Magnificent, isn’t it? Not many of our clan have been king, you know. And do you know why? They fear us. A wizard’s life span is many times that of a normal pony, and they feared the idea of an immortal king.”

“Not all of the Night Clan are wizards.”

“Minoko, do you remember the last time you were in this hall? How long ago was it?”

“You’re changing the subject.”

“I’ve said all I have on the subject of kings.”

Minoko was silent for a minute. “The last time I was in the Hall of Kings was when I battled Clever Clover’s father during Jack O Lantern’s first coup attempt... when he chopped of my horn.”

“Were you infatuated with the prince even back then? Oh, wait, that’s right. He wasn’t even born yet. You are easily old enough to be his mother, but to look at the two of you it would seem he has a year or two on you.”

“What is you point?”

“I’m just making small talk. By the way, what happened after the master’s failed coup?”

“He summoned Bic the imp, and I became a pirate.”

“You felt no loyalty for Jack O Lantern?”

“You know as well as I how poor he was at inspiring loyalty in his followers. Besides, I was never comfortable being a wizard’s apprentice; and he made it clear to me that I wasn’t living up to his expectations.”

“So it was a mutual decision to part company then?”

“Something like that. I’m feeling a little tired. If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a nap.” And with that, Minoko sank through the floor.

Nightshade stepped out of the shadows next to her brother. “I don’t trust her, brother. She is not truly behind our cause.”

“It doesn’t matter. If she thinks she will get Clever Clover, she will do whatever we require of her. That was the master’s shortcoming; he didn’t know how to motivate.”

“But why do you taunt her so? You might drive her away.”

“I am keeping her confused. The less she thinks about the situation, the less likely she is to realize our true intentions. Speaking of which, how are the preparations going?”

“As planned. I’ve neutralized all the Magus’ wards. When the full moon rises, we will be ready to proceed.”

“Excellent.”

* * *
The Sea Patrol search and rescue balloon approached Malachite Castle cautiously. Clever Clover, Ironwood, and Belle Star were on the lookout for any signs of an enemy lookout while Key steered the balloon. There was no one in sight and they landed safely on the highest tower of the castle.

“Okay everyone, there are four of us and only three of them, but we can’t let our guard down,” Clever Clover said. “If Hemlock’s sister is the same dark swordpony that Enchantment told us about, this is not going to be easy. My magic axe won’t be much good against her, so one of you three will have to handle her when the time comes. And Minoko is no pushover, either; I’ll take her on. I know how she fights and hopefully she’s still in love with me so she’ll hold back. Hemlock we took care of pretty easily last time we faced him, but he might have improved since then. Since he is a wizard, we’ll have to strike at him fast, before he can cast a spell. So, are we all ready?”

“Yes!” they replied in unison.

Ironwood took the lead as they made their descent into Malachite Castle, followed by Clever Clover, Belle Star, and finally Key. Ironwood paused at the bottom of the winding stairs from the tower. “Clever Clover, do we plan to rescue the prisoners first or take on the Triumvirate?”

“Our friends come first. Besides, it’ll probably be the best way to find the Triumvirate.”

Ironwood led the party to the left and through a secret panel. “This passage will take us down to two levels above the dungeon. There are no secret passages below that.”

At the end of the passage, Ironwood peered through a peek-hole to make sure the coast was clear. “I don’t see anyone, but be ready for anything. Those three can come at you from out of nowhere.” He opened the hidden door and stepped cautiously into the hallway. After surveying the area, he gestured for the others to follow. “Down this hall is a stairway. At the bottom of the stair we will turn left, then take the first right, pass three doors, all on the right, then two on the left. The second door on the left takes us to the dungeon.”

“How did you ever learn your way around this place?” Belle Star asked.

“Good question. I can’t remember ever not knowing my way around. Since I was raised here, it’s just second nature.”

“You were raised in the castle?” asked Clever Clover. “I thought only the nobles were raised here.”

“My mom was a servant to the former queen, and she brought me along to work most of the time.”

“The former queen. You mean my mother?”

“I guess so. I never really thought about it.”

“Did you ever meet her?”

“Yeah, I’ll tell you all about it after we take care of this business.”

“Right. Let’s go.”

The foursome carried on toward the dungeon, down the stairs, around the corner, and past the doors to the door that would lead them to their friends. Ironwood reached out to open the door, but it didn’t move.

“Ah, it seems to be locked.”

Key stepped forward. “I should be able to get it open. I know a thing or two about picking locks.”

Clever Clover brandished his axe. “I could probably get it open faster.”

“Or you could surrender to us and be taken through the door in chains.”

The heros drew their swords at the sound of the mysterious voice. “Hm, that voice isn’t Minoko or Hemlock. It must be that dark swordpony.”

“Quite right.” Nightshade stepped out of the shadows. “But ‘that dark swordpony’ isn’t much of a name. You can call me Nightshade.”

Key faced Nightshade. “In the name of the Pony Sea Patrol and in accordance with our treaty with the Isle of the Green Lake, I am placing you under arrest!”

Nightshade drew her sword. “Everyone in this castle relies too much on magic. It will be refreshing to test my skills against one who fights on her own merits.”

“I was the top fencer in my class at Sea Patrol Academy,” boasted Key.

Nightshade lunged at Key, who just barely blocked the attack. Key countered but Nightshade, with a quick flick of her blade, disarmed the Sea Patrol officer.

“That was disappointing,” said Nightshade as she raised her sword for the kill.

Belle Star leapt forward and deflected the blow. “I won’t let you hurt my friend!” she cried.

“Another challenger? I hope you last longer than your friend, but I wouldn’t count on it.” Before Nightshade could move, Belle Star launched a furious attack and drove Nightshade back several steps. Nightshade countered, but was only able to slowly retake her ground.

Ironwood, meanwhile, found himself occupied with a sword that seemed to move and attack of its own accord. “This must be Hemlock’s doing,” said Clever Clover. “Do you need a hand?”

“I don’t think so. It’s not really that good a fighter; I just can’t figure out how I’m supposed to attack it.”

“Maybe my axe can take it down,” offered the prince.

“Oh, but I think we could find a better use for that axe of yours.” Minoko materialized through the floor with her whorled horn of energy upon her forehead.

“Minoko! Why are you doing this?!”

Minoko shook her head. “You wouldn’t understand; you don’t need to understand. I am doing what must be done for the good of my people.” The pirate lunged at Clever Clover who jumped aside.

“I won’t fight you, Minoko! You are my friend! I don’t want to be your enemy.”

“But that is the way it is.” Minoko continued to attack and Clever Clover dodged, but never counterattacked.

Key had recovered her sword and joined her partner in fighting Nightshade. “Two against one is hardly fair, though the two of you are giving me more of the challenge I have been looking for.”

* * *
Meanwhile, in the throne room, Hemlock sat in a semi-trance, viewing the fight and controlling the blade that occupied Ironwood. “Too bad I can’t do two swords, and take one of those Sea Patrol ponies off Nightshade,” he mumbled.

A sudden flash of light momentarily distracted him, but he soon regained complete control. “Who is it? Magus? Enchantment? Which of you will test your mettle against the master?”

Enchantment twirled her ancient wand over her head. “You’re no master, Hemlock! You are only a misguided apprentice!”

“Oh, it’s you. Hoping to defeat me with your power of distraction? I assure you, I am quite prepared for you this time.”

Enchantment held her wand in front of her. “Mana of all creation, bring your peace upon Hemlock! Put him into deepest slumber!”

Hemlock laughed. “Little girl, your power is nothing compared to mine.”

“But, there’s no way that spell could have failed completely! You should have at least yawned!”

Hemlock stood and shook his head. “You have no idea what is going on here.” He began to mumble in some dark, ancient language.

Enchantment felt a chill run down her spine. The room became dark, and shadows began to move to and fro with no light or body to cast them. The shadows circled around Enchantment, drawing closer and closer. She frantically began to recite a counter spell but the shadows continued to close in on her. She was getting cold, and she could see her breath in the air. Then, without warning, a tormented scream filled the room. The shadows stopped moving and began to melt away. When the darkness lifted, Enchantment saw Hemlock on his knees, holding his head with both forehooves.

“Why why why, why can’t I do this? I am the master! What power does she have over you that you cannot harm her? She is nobody! A little girl! We should have finished her long ago!”

* * *
Back at the dungeon door, the sword once animated by Hemlock’s magic had fallen, lifeless, to the floor. Everyone froze in shock. “Brother!” cried Nightshade, as she disappeared into the darkness.

“It looks like we’ll have to finish this another time,” said Minoko, as she disappeared through a wall.

“Ah, what just happened here?” asked Belle Star.

“There’s no time to ask questions.” Clever Clover splintered the dungeon door with a single blow of his axe. “Lets move!” The foursome hurried down the steps toward their imprisoned friends.

* * *
Enchantment cautiously approached Hemlock. “Are you okay?”

“En…Enchantment. Please leave now while you still can. She is coming.”

“She? Your sister?”

Hemlock writhed in torment. “Ahrg! Nightshade! She’s here! The little one is here!”

The dark swordpony arrived in the throne room just as Enchantment waved her wand and disappeared. “Brother! What did she do to you?”

Hemlock sat, gasping for breath. “She confused me. For a moment I didn’t know who I was. You will stay with me now, sister. She fears you. How went the fight?”

“Not as well as I would have liked. Those Sea Patrol officers have some skill between them, and the yellow haired one has a lot of luck.”

“Luck, sister? That doesn’t sound like you.”

“Magic and skill I can deal with; but luck, even I have not mastered.”

“Well, it’s nice to know that even you aren’t perfect,” said Minoko.

“Oh, you’re here. Get tired of playing with your boyfriend?”

“You left the fight first, Nightshade. But I’m a team player; I was concerned for your brother.”

“Since when were you ever concerned for any team? From what I heard, you abandoned the master after his first coup.”

“Clever Clover has been a good influence on me, I guess. Now, shall we get on with the business at hand and distract those do-gooders till moonrise?”

“She has a point, sister. Come along then. To the dungeon.”

“You’re coming with us? I thought you’d be making final preparations for the ritual.”

“With Enchantment about, I’m not taking any risks. The three of us will stay together from here on. Now, move!”

* * *
In the dungeon, Clever Clover and company had found the cells where the inhabitants of Malachite Castle were imprisoned. “Where do they keep the keys?” asked Clever Clover.

“I’ll get them,” said Ironwood.

Clever Clover peered through the window on one cell. “Hello, anybody home?”

Morning Glory leapt to her hooves. “Clever Clover! I knew you’d rescue us!”

“Yeah, I didn’t have anything better to do today.”

“Cousin! What’s the word on the Triumvirate? Have you dealt with them yet?”

“I’m afraid not, Oak. I figured our first priority was to get you to safety.”

“The women and Vin will flee. Raven and I will come with you.”

“I’d like to come, too,” said Morning Glory.

“Are you sure?” asked Clever Clover.

Morning Glory nodded. “I’ve got to start standing on my own four hooves sooner or later. I think I am ready for this.”

Ironwood returned with a jingling ring of keys. “Here we go; let’s get those cells open.”

“Good job, Ironwood,” congratulated the king. “The sooner I can get out of here and teach those hooligans a lesson, the better.”

The cells were soon open and the escape plan was being formed. “The servants, Vin, Gooseberry, and Foxglove will evacuate through the secret passages,” said Ironwood. “My guards will escort them. The rest of us will stay to take on the Triumvirate.”

Ironwood, Clever Clover, and King Oak led the party up the stairs to the hidden door; Key, Belle Star, Morning Glory, and Raven brought up the rear. They reached the passage without incident and the servants and guard-ponies quickly made their way in. Gooseberry, Foxglove, and Vin paused a moment to make their goodbyes.

Archbishop Vin made the sign of the cross over them. “Good luck, brave heroes. May God go with you. I wish that I could come with you, but I am not cut out for such things.”

“Thank you all,” said Foxglove with a bow. “My prayers will be with you.”

Queen Gooseberry threw her forelegs around Oak. “Be safe, my love.” She gave him a kiss and turned to the rest of the heros. “All of you be safe.”

Oak took his wife’s hoof in his. “My love, I will be counting the moments until we are together again. Now make haste.”

The last three ponies entered the passage and the door closed behind them.

“How touching,” came a voice form the shadows. All the ponies who had them drew their swords. Raven had picked up the sword with which Hemlock had menaced Ironwood earlier. Clever Clover, who had been carrying an extra sword, handed it to the king.

The three ponies of the Night Clan stepped out of the shadows. “Princess,” said Hemlock. “I’m surprised to see you. But it makes no difference. Six or seven will fall as easily.” He began to mumble an ancient spell in a lost language. Clever Clover, Belle Star, and King Oak charged forward while Ironwood and Key guarded Morning Glory. But before they could get halfway to Hemlock, he finished his spell and they found themselves frozen in space, unable to move.

Nightshade stepped toward the immobilized heros. “I think it is time, Minoko, to keep our end of the bargain and remove those who stand between you and Clever Clover.” She stood next to Belle Star. “I think I’ll start with the lucky one, since she seems so eager.” The dark swordpony drew her sword and held it over Belle Star. “Let’s see your luck save you now.”

Clever Clover struggled against Hemlock’s magic. “Don’t you dare harm a hair on her head!”

“You’re in no position to make demands.” And with that, Nightshade’s blade fell, only to be caught mere inches above Belle Star’s neck by Minoko’s energy horn.

“WHAT!” Nightshade shrieked. “That’s impossible! Your magic cannot touch me! I…am…invincible!” Nightshade backed away from Minoko, who held her horn toward the dark swordpony.

“You are nothing but a simple puzzle for a true wizard to figure out.”

“Minoko, you betrayed us!” said Hemlock in disgust.

“The condition of our alliance was that no harm would come to Clever Clover. And any harm done to his friends would be the same as a harm done to him. And I will let no harm come to him, or his…our... friends.”

Belle Star broke into tears. “Oh, thank you, Minoko!”

“Brother, hold her for me and I shall finish her!”

Hemlock shook his head. “There is no time; the moon has risen. We must complete our mission; they cannot stop us now.” With that, he disappeared in a plume of smoke. Nightshade stepped into the shadows and was gone.

Clever Clover, who could move again, rushed to Belle Star’s side. “Are you all right?”

“Uh huh. Thanks to Minoko.”

“Yeah, it was nothin’.” Her energy horn vanished, revealing an iron fireplace poker which clattered to the floor. “I’m glad I won’t have to be carrying that around anymore.”

“So, Minoko, were you ever really on their side?” asked Clever Clover.

“No way! But when Nightshade came and offered me a partnership, I knew they were up to something; and the best way to find out what was to play along.”

“Ha ha! Good show! I’m glad to hear that you are, and always were, on our side,” said Oak.

Morning Glory stepped forward. “Minoko, I know we haven’t always gotten along, but I’m glad you’re Clever Clover’s friend. And I hope that the two of us can be friends also.”

Minoko was becoming quite uncomfortable with all the attention. “We should be getting after Hemlock and Nightshade. I think they’re headed for the chamber of the Regents. And princess,” Minoko produced a bundle. “I found this lying around, and I thought you might like it.”

“Thank you. I’m glad I packed this.” Morning Glory took the bundle and withdrew her ancestral sword. “Even though I had hoped I wouldn’t need it.”

And so the heros, now numbering eight, pursued the villains into the very heart of Malachite Castle. This time Raven took the lead. When they reached the chamber of the Regents, they found their path blocked by a magical barrier.

Raven smashed his sword against the invisible wall. “Curses! Hemlock has locked us out!”

“I could get past it,” said Minoko. “But I can’t take passengers. All I could do is try to distract Hemlock enough to disrupt the spell.”

Clever Clover shook his head. “And while you distracted Hemlock, Nightshade would have an easy target. There has to be a way to do this without that kind of sacrifice.”

“Maybe we can help.” Magus and Enchantment stepped up to the barrier.

“It’s getting kind of crowded in here,” commented Belle Star.

“When the barrier falls,” said Magus, “Enchantment, Clever Clover, Minoko, and I will charge Hemlock. The rest of you go for Nightshade.”

Enchantment and Magus recited an incantation in unison. “Mana of all creation, hear and answer our call. Open our path, remove the barrier that stands in our way.” Enchantment raised her wand and smashed the barrier.

“Now go!” cried Magus.

The heros rushed into the chamber, a circular room with seven chairs around the edge and a pedestal in the center. Nightshade stood in their path, but the combined force of King Oak, Raven, Ironwood, Belle Star, and Key rushing into her drove her back to the pedestal where she made her stand. Morning Glory followed hesitantly, not used to such activities.

“Ha ha ha!” Hemlock cackled. “It is too late! It has already been set into motion!”

Clever Clover, Minoko, and Enchantment confronted Hemlock. “Whatever you’ve set into motion, we will stop it!” said Clever Clover.

Finally, Magus strode into the chamber. As soon as he stood with all four hooves in the chamber, the air became filled with a bright, pure light for a split second. For a moment after the flash, all action on the chamber ceased.

“Wh…what just happened?” asked Morning Glory.

“Ahrg! My spell! It’s gone! All the effort, all the planning, all for naught! Sister, we must quit this place! Hurry!” Hemlock vanished in a puff of black smoke.

Nightshade looked around at her challengers. “I’ll be along in a moment, brother. I must claim one victory before I leave!” She leapt into the air, right over the heads of Oak and the rest. She came down with her sword directed at Morning Glory. “One of you will fall!”

Morning Glory raised her own sword, thought she barely knew how to use it, in anticipation of Nightshade’s attack. But it never came. The blade of the sword of the Spirit Clan began to glow and a dome of light formed around Morning Glory that blocked Nightshade’s attack. The dark swordpony tumbled from the dome and landed roughly in the shadow of one of the large, ornate chairs and disappeared.

Everyone was again stunned. “Okay, what just happened?” asked Clever Clover.

Magus shook his head. “I am not entirely sure. The flash of light is a complete mystery. Princess Morning Glory’s sword, however, I can explain. Though Nightshade is a master swordpony and immune to magic, the sword of the Spirit Clan is not magical, it is holy. And no one save the divine can resist holy power.”

Morning Glory gazed at her sword in awe. “I had no idea.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, master Magus, how is it that Hemlock could even get into the castle? I thought you had erected wards against such intrusions.”

“A good question, Raven. The invitation that Morning Glory received was a gate; it allowed Hemlock and Minoko to bypass the wards. Unfortunately, though, there is nothing my magic can do to ward off Nightshade.”

“Then it’s my fault, for bringing the invitation into the castle?”

King Oak patted her on the shoulder. “Do not fret, princess. You could not have known. Besides, everything turned out all right in the end.”

“I suppose…”

“If you will excuse me, I need to reenforce the wards and research the mysterious flash.” Magus bowed and exited the Chamber.

“Will you be needing me, master?” Enchantment called after him.

“No, not right now. Why don’t you spend some time with your friends form Friendship Gardens? It’s not every day we have so many guests.”

“Thank you.” Enchantment turned to Clever Clover and the others. “Something is troubling me. In the past when I have encountered Hemlock, he had seemed a misguided soul moreso than evil. But today, when I confronted him, during your fight at the dungeon door, he was different. Not only was he arguing with himself, when he called out for his sister, he called her by name. I have never heard them refer to each other as anything but ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. I’m…worried about him.”

“That does sound strange. I was with them for several weeks and I never heard them use each other’s names, even when they argued.”

“Well, there will be time to worry about that later. Now is time to celebrate! We have won! Even though we are not entirely clear on the details how. But anyway, you are my guests and the rules of Malachite Castle clearly state that guests shall not be melancholy!”

“There is no such rule,” Raven mumbled.

Oak glared at him. “I am the king, and if I say it is the rule, then it is the rule. Now Ironwood, would you be so kind as to fetch the others so we can begin preparations for a proper celebration?”

The guardpony bowed. “Right away, sire.”

* * *
Shortly, the castle was full of life and joy once more. Minoko, Belle Star, Key, and Morning Glory joined the queen, Enchantment, and Foxglove in gossip while the servants went about making preparations for a feast. Clever Clover, despite Oak’s invitation to a fencing match, insisted on helping out in the kitchen, where he taught the cooks some of his special recipes. Feeling left out, King Oak joined the prince in the kitchen, and learned he had no talent for cooking. Once the table was set, even Magus emerged from his laboratory for the celebration.

As the banquet began, King Oak stood and raised his glass. “We have had to weather dire circumstances to come to this celebration, but it is well worth it to have our friend, the wayward prince Clever Clover, with us; and Princess Morning Glory; and also our guests from the Sea Patrol, Officer Key and Lady Belle Star. And for the first time in too long, a member of the Night Clan, Minoko, sits at our table in honor. To begin the celebration, I propose a toast to the Night Clan– may they soon be back in the fold– and to the remaining lost clans, Fire and Water– may they be returned to us with less strife than the Night Clan.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Whitewhirl
by Sugarberry (Sugrbery@aol.com) and Tabby (TabbyMLP@aol.com)


The sun was setting over the western waters as Garnet and Wishbone walked along the small but beautiful beach. They had arrived at their honeymoon destination several hours earlier, taking the time to settle into their rooms at the isolated location of the chalky stucco ocean front villa that now glowed pink from the sunset. Having spoken for the smallest suite available, the newlyweds had been able to afford this luxurious hide-away.

Glancing at the mare that had become his wife only yesterday, Wishbone grinned. “So, do you think you’ll be able to handle being pampered by this efficient staff for an entire week?”

Taking her husband’s hoof in her own, Garnet smiled back. “It’s going to be tough, but I’ll learn to adjust.”

The two of them had been met by the brisk and efficient manager of the rambling seaside estate known as Pearlhaven, shown to their rooms by a stone-faced steward, and introduced to the amenities of their domicile by a orderly and obliging maid. The accommodations were small but luxurious; and their every need had been anticipated. No doubt they would have a comfortable stay.

“Just don’t get used to it,” Wishbone warned, drawing Garnet into his forelegs. “Reality will hit hard once we’re back in Dream Valley, what with school and work and all.” He kissed the tip of the nose of the scarlet mare.

“Reality with you I look forward to,” Garnet replied, her violet eyes shining with a brilliance that rivaled the orange orb sinking into the sea.

“This is the current reality,” whispered Wishbone, taking her breath away with a kiss.

The sun had long since disappeared into its watery bed before the two ponies returned to Pearlhaven. Their attention being centered on each other, they did not notice the spectral face with large, luminous eyes that watched them curiously from the gathering tide.

* * *
“May I get you anything else?” queried the waiter solicitously. “Chef Camembert has created a delectable parfait featuring lemons. It’s quite refreshing.”

“Tempting...” sighed Garnet, leaning back from the table. She and Wishbone had just consumed a meal fit for a king, and nothing had been wanting. Still, a heavenly dessert...

“Bring it on,” drawled Wishbone, having found the tasteful and artistic dishes of Camembert delicious but rather on the light side. And there would be none of Sugarberry’s cookies and milk to raid in the middle of the night... not that he would have need of such a diversion.

As Quicksand headed for the kitchen, Wishbone surveyed the patio that looked out over the sparkling ocean and grinned at his wife. “It’s like we’ve got this whole place to ourselves; I thought there’d be other guests.”

He had no sooner finished speaking when two ponies clattered onto the flagstones from the direction of the beach, both of them looking rather bedraggled and out-of-sorts.

You miscalculated,” growled the stallion, glaring angrily at the mare. “It’s all your fault.”

The mare, a petite lavender pony with pink hair shot through with sparks of glittering silver, returned an equally aggravated look at her companion. “It was your incompetence that caused...” she began, then stopped suddenly as she became aware of Wishbone and Garnet watching with intrigued expressions. “Oh. The new guests are here,” she said expressively, calling her compatriot’s attention to that fact.

The two newcomers shared a guarded glance, then moved across the patio to seat themselves at the table farthest from Garnet and Wishbone who had finally remembered their manners and had turned their attention away from the squabbling couple.

“Will that be us in a couple of years?” queried Garnet softly, her eyes sparkling.

“Sooner,” Wishbone glibly admitted. “We’ll be constantly arguing over which movie to watch on that awesome entertainment system Sable gave us.”

Garnet rolled her eyes expressively. “Spike and Friendly and Caravel and the rest of that crew will probably have it worn out by the time we get back.”

“I’m not sure it was wise to give them free access to our apartment while we’re gone, but it seemed the only way to hold them off last night.”

Quicksand returned at that moment with Wishbone and Garnet’s desserts; as he set the creamy concoctions before them, he glanced across at the late arrivals. Having sensed that Wishbone and Garnet were not the priggish type, the waiter decided to drop the formality that his boss demanded and engage in a little gossip. “So they finally showed up, did they?” he said, nodding toward the two ponies.

“They’re two of the other paying guests?” questioned Wishbone.

“Yes, Tinder and Honeydew. They spend most of their time out on their boat.”

“Surely there are other guests as well,” Garnet prodded, curious to learn of the other occupants of their temporary home.

“Oh, yeah. At least, there’s a group that made reservations. They haven’t shown up yet.”

“A group?” asked Wishbone. “You mean, like a convention?”

“Not anything that drastic,” grinned Quicksand. “Just five ponies; they take pictures or somethin’.”

“It’s the perfect setting for that,” allowed Garnet, once more taking in the soothing sight of the opalescent moon smiling down over the water.

“Could we get some service over here?” grated the pony identified as Tinder. He tossed back his emerald green mane with impatience.

“‘S’cuse me,” winked Quicksand as he took his leave of Wishbone and Garnet. “Catch ya later.” He sped off to meet the demands of the harried Tinder.

“I doubt that,” Wishbone murmured under his breath, sending his bride a warm and tender look.

* * *
Strolling along the white sandy beach of the bay the following morning, Garnet kept her gaze downward as she searched for seashells. She had promised Tabby to keep her eyes open for any appropriate shells that would provide homes for the elusive hermit crabs in which Tabby had recently developed an interest. Thomas had merely shrugged his shoulders as yet another animal species was included in the menagerie that Tabby gathered around herself at their mansion.

“Oh, cool!” she choked as she stumbled over a prime specimen buried beneath her hooves. She reached down to pick up the beige and ivory spiraled dome, and cautiously peered inside. “No one’s home,” she surmised, dropping the shell into her backpack.

“There’s another one,” said Wishbone, pointing to a beauty just at the edge of the lapping waves. He retrieved it and added it to their collection.

The two ponies, oblivious to anything except the sand and the shells, spent the next hour or two with their heads down and their eyes inspecting the shore.

“This one is mine!” called Garnet as the lapping waves delivered a creamy, spiny shell at her hooves. “Isn’t it beautiful?” She held it up for Wishbone to see the pearlite pink interior.

“Beautiful,” Wishbone breathed, his eyes not on the shell but on his wife.

“Oh! You!” Garnet laughed, splashing the stallion with the readily available surf, then retreating up the beach.

Shaking the water out of his mane, Wishbone sprinted after the mare, catching her easily and pulling him into his forelegs. “You can’t escape.”

“Who said I wanted to?” Garnet whispered, lifting her lips to his.

Suddenly, the roaring noise of an engine interrupted the romantic moment. Sand billowed out in clouds as a vehicle, driving at a high speed, appeared from over a sand dune. Music was blaring from the stereo and loud shouts came from the ponies within.

“LOUDER!! LOUDER!! TURN IT UP!!!”

“HAIKU, SLOW DOWN!! THERE ARE PONIES AHEAD!”

“I SAW THEM ALREADY! MITZI, WOULD YOU STOP FOOLING WITH THE RADIO!”

“HEY, WOULDN’T THIS BE A GOOD PLACE TO STOP?”

“WOOHOO! WE CAN HIT THE SURF!”

“NO! I MEAN, LOOK FOR THE CRITTER! PUT ON THE BRAKES!”

The vehicle came to a skidding halt just yards from Garnet and Wishbone, who could only gape in disbelief as the five ponies leaped from the buggy. At least the loud music and shouting were gone as one of the mares trained a camera on the stallion of the group who stood before the picturesque horizon and began his narration.

“Here we are at lovely Coral Cove on the west shore of Ponyland! While we’re here, we’ll be able to check out all the awesome coral reefs and aquatic life and stuff, but our main objective is to follow up on reports we’ve heard of a very rare albino aquatic animal in this area! See if we succeed...”

“Um, excuse me, but what are you ponies doing?” Wishbone put in weakly.

The aqua stallion whirled around as if noticing the couple for the first time. “Great, just great!” he fumed. “Now you’ve ruined my intro! Just who do you think you are, anyway?”

We were trying to enjoy some privacy,” Garnet said, looking at the stranger pointedly.

“Whatever.” Turning and ignoring Garnet, Cazador continued. “Okay, Psyche, take it from the beginning. All right! Here we are at the lovely...”

* * *
“So much for peace and quiet,” sighed Garnet, watching the dune buggy as it disappeared in the direction of Pearlhaven, leaving a trail of disturbed sand in its wake. Cazador and his crew had finished their preliminary taping and were now headed for some rest and relaxation to revitalize themselves before beginning their quest in earnest.

“Hopefully, they’ll spend most of their time far, far away,” responded Wishbone. “At least, they didn’t run over our picnic basket.”

Chef Camembert had prepared a delightful lunch for the newlyweds to take with them so that they would not have to time their walk to return for the noon luncheon. That morning, listening to their request for a simple packet of sandwiches, the chef had scoffed. “For you, I will prepare a special treat... something for lovers, no?” He had disappeared into his kitchen; and by the time Garnet and Wishbone had finished breakfast and been ready to set off on their excursion, he had gifted them with a closed basket with the admonition, “Don’t open until lunchtime!” He had then thumped Wishbone on the back and winked broadly at Garnet.

With the sun high in the sky, Garnet and Wishbone found that they had slowly but surely worked their way almost to the rocky outcropping that formed the southernmost curve of the sheltered bay. Where they now stood, the beach was littered with rocks of varying sizes; and the further they went, the larger the rocks became until they were butted up against the sea wall itself. “Look, Garnet. That rock is flat enough to be our table,” Wishbone pointed out, “and the two smaller ones can be our chairs.”

“Perfect!” glowed Garnet, just now realizing how hungry she was. As Wishbone set the picnic hamper on the rock, she reached to open the hinged lid, uncovering a neatly folded tablecloth. “Camembert thought of everything,” she enthused, lifting out the pristine lily white square of linen edged in lace. “How romantic!” Two matching napkins followed.

With the lapping waves providing a melody accompanied by the cries of several circling seagulls, the little ponies unpacked the further treasures of the basket. There were two delicate porcelain plates with a shell pattern painted on them, silverware, crystal wine glasses, and a single red rose complete with vase.

Beneath these accessories was the heart of the chef’s work. Packed in ice were creme vichyssoise, crackers and pate, pasta salad, frosted fruits, deviled eggs, salad greens, bite-sized delicately-iced cakes, nuts, and a bottle of deep red wine. Like two foals at a pretend tea-party, Wishbone and Garnet set out the dishes and arranged their plates and proceeded to enjoy the luxury of Camembert’s offering as the sun edged its way westward and the shadows began to creep slowly from the rocky cliffs.

The two ponies sat and talked long after the food was gone, finding that a world with no distractions provided the perfect stage to express thoughts and fancies that in a faster paced setting would be lost or discounted.

After packing up all the items from their al fresco luncheon, Garnet made an observation. “We’ve been here nearly twenty-four hours and haven’t been in the water yet.”

“That’s easily remedied.” Wishbone gazed out over the fluid expanse of the ocean and noted a buoy in the distance. “I’ll race you to that buoy and back again.”

“You’re on!” Not standing on ceremony, Garnet immediately hit the surf, giving herself a head-start as Wishbone faltered momentarily as he set the picnic basket safely out of reach of the waves.

Neither pony was that adept at swimming, their experience with the sport having amounted to foalhood romps in lethargic meadow streams; but what they lacked in form, they made up in effort. Garnet splashed her way to the buoy first and began the trek back to the sandy shore. She made one mistake, however, laughing at Wishbone’s slower progress as she met him which goaded him into trying harder and– possibly– not quite reaching the buoy before he turned to follow the mare.

Garnet had made in about half-way back to shore when she turned her head to look behind her to see where Wishbone was when she caught a flash of white out of the corner of her eye as something quickly submerged several yards off her left side. The motion distracted her and worried her just a bit, causing her to stop swimming; treading water, she hovered where she was, gently paddling as she peered into the water where she had last seen the fleeting specter.

“You’ve given up already?” teased Wishbone as he came up beside her .

“I saw something...”

“Quicksand said there’s nothing dangerous in these waters,” Wishbone stated, but he, too, began to peer into the depths.

“There was a brief glint of white,” Garnet explained. “I couldn’t identify...”

“There’s something coming around behind us,” Wishbone warned, perceiving a ghostly form circling below the surface.

“Where?” croaked Garnet, turning quickly and grabbing onto Wishbone, effectively drawing both of them underwater.

Paddling to gain the surface again, Garnet was further discomposed to feel the feather-light touch of what she could only imagine to be a fin brush against her. Erupting from the water at the same time as Wishbone, she gasped. “What is that thing?”

She got her answer as that “thing” burst out of the water only a foreleg’s reach away from the two ponies, fastening them with a look that could only be described as... cherubic. The little creature was pure white from what was visible of it, its head in the shape and size of a baby pony, the only color being in the round, innocent eyes that peered at them in apparent inquisitiveness. Those eyes were a pure, glowing pink. Perky ears gave it an intelligent appearance.

Before either pony could say a word, the compact creature propelled itself upward, out of the water, and dived beneath the surface, showering Wishbone and Garnet while revealing his fish-like body and fins. Brushing her hoof across her eyes, Garnet giggled. “That was a sea pony!”

“A baby sea pony, at that,” agreed Wishbone, following the little aquatic pony’s progress as it swam under them before resurfacing. It flashed them a sassy grin before propelling itself out to deeper water; then, noting that the scarlet mare and the rose-red stallion remained where they were, the sea pony circled around and came directly toward them, nudging them with its nose when he came near. Once more, it circled and headed out toward the horizon.

“I think he wants us to follow him,” Garnet decided.

“Either that or play with him,” Wishbone countered, noting the mischievous expression on the sea pony’s face.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Garnet took off after the nimble youngster, and Wishbone promptly followed.

For the next hour, the two ponies and the pearl-white baby sea pony frolicked in the ocean, all three playing together like foals released for recess. The sea pony instigated a game of tag; and with his natural abilities to maneuver through the water, he was able to dominate, leaving Garnet and Wishbone breathless and laughing and seeking shallower water.

Rolling on the gentle waves, the sea pony allowed them a few moments to recover while he continued to perform acrobatics that, even at his young age, already showed great grace and power. The ponies marveled at his ability to twist and turn, dive and leap, circle and race, all with unbounded energy.

It was not long before the little fellow was again entreating the ponies to join with him in the fun, his pink eyes shining in entreaty. He submerged, only to return with a conch shell that he tossed off his nose to Garnet who in turn threw it to Wishbone from whom it was sent once more to the sea pony, and so began a game of catch which turned into a riotous round of keep-away as the sea pony and Wishbone hoarded the shell between them.

Laughing and holding her side, Garnet called timeout. “I can’t keep this up,” she panted, collapsing in the shallows and brushing the mane out of her eyes.

“How about we declare a truce, Bobby?” Wishbone asked of the sea pony, applying the moniker that he and Garnet had been using to refer to the little tyke who was always bobbing up in front of them.

The sea pony showed his agreement with a leap out of the water accompanied by a splash of foamy brine from his tail. When he reappeared, there was a grin on his face.

“This has been great fun, Bobby,” Garnet said, “but I’ll bet you’re parents are getting worried about you. We should be getting home, too. We can play more tomorrow.”

Reminded of his parents and home, the smile left the little aquatic creature’s face and he looked heartbroken; before either pony could say a word, he slipped under the surface of the water without leaving a ripple and was gone.

Both ponies stared out over the sparkling seascape for some idea where the baby sea pony was headed, but there was not a sign of his progress through the water. The only thing besides themselves in the entire vista was a motorboat just nosing its way from around the rocky southern arm of the bay.

“That’s Tinder and Honeydew.” Even at this distance, Garnet recognized the squabbling couple from last evening.

“Let’s hope they had a more enjoyable day than yesterday,” Wishbone grinned. “I think the villa will have enough excitement of its own with the new guests without those two cutting up at each other.”

“Yeah,” Garnet agreed, accepting Wishbone’s forehoof to pull her to her hooves. She took one more speculative look across the water at the motorboat before allowing Wishbone to walk her up the beach.

* * *
Lowering the binoculars from his eyes, Tinder growled. “They’ve seen the sea pony.”

“While we spent our day miles south of here!” Honeydew growled back. “I told you...”

“Don’t start, Dewy,” Tinder warned. “If you’d of moved in faster when we had our chance...”

“Stow it!” Honeydew tossed her head in warning. “You designed the cage, remember? ‘It’ll hold anything,’ you said. Anything... except a supple baby sea pony.”

“How was I to know it would wriggle free of its parents? He never left their side before.”

“You didn’t think, Tinder. I suggest you start doing a little more of that now. Skeesicks isn’t known for his patience, you know.”

A glint of fear appeared in Tinder’s eyes, and he stopped his blustering. “Yeah, I know.”

* * *
The main suite of rooms at Pearlhaven occupied the central complex of the villa and was fronted with a flowered terrace that looked out over the sandy beach that ended at the ocean’s edge. Dividing the private terrace from the communal dining patio was a high hedge that prevented visual access but did nothing to deter the flow of sound that emanated from Mitzi’s boom box. Garnet prodded Wishbone toward the table the greatest distance from Cazador and crew’s lodgings and slipped into her chair with a yawn.

“That water frolic wore me out,” she admitted, rubbing the sore muscles in her forelegs.

“Bobby was a bundle of energy,” agreed Wishbone. “I wonder where the rest of his family was.”

“That’s been bothering me, too. Did you see how worried he looked just before he took off?”

“He probably realized he’d just missed supper,” Wishbone surmised. “I’m starved.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” quipped Quicksand as he came up to their table. “What can I get you this evening?”

“Ear plugs!” Garnet brooded as a particularly raucous melody came through the hedge.

Quicksand snickered. “Get used to it. Cazador and his girls are booked through the end of the week, same as you.”

“Isn’t there any liability for noise pollution?” queried Wishbone.

Chuckling, Quicksand admitted, “Camembert is on the warpath himself. His souffle fell, and he’s convinced that it was the loud music that did it.”

“The music doesn’t seem to bother you,” noted Garnet, glaring at the waiter.

“Have you seen those four mares?” he asked, a dreamy expression settling over his face. “Asta... Mitzi... Haiku... Psyche... Their names read like a mantra or something.”

“Throw Cazador in the mix,” Wishbone grinned.

Quicksand quickly came careening into that compelling conundrum. “He does throw it off, doesn’t he? I only wish I had a following of groupies like those four.” He phased out again, his thoughts pleasant.

“You might have a chance to gain a following if you’d carry through on your job more circumspectly,” hinted Wishbone, anxious for his supper.

“What? Oh! May I take your order?”

* * *
In the opposite corner of the patio, Tinder and Honeydew seemed subdued, whether from the blaring music or from their earlier contention was anyone’s guess. Both ponies brooded over their drinks in sulky silence which became tangible as the music suddenly ended and the metal gate between the terrace and the patio opened on its oiled hinges.

Through the opening advanced a peach-colored unicorn followed by a sky-blue pegasus and a bright yellow earth pony. Bringing up the rear was an aqua earth pony in deep conversation with a brash young stallion with a unicorn’s horn spouting from beneath his grape-colored mane, his cyan-blue body lean and trim. The quintet marched to the large center table, and the girls let Cazador seat himself at the head before they all clustered around him. “Well, girls, tomorrow’s the day,” their leader announced.

“Hooray!” Mitzi enthused. “I have so wanted to go surfing!”

“No, not surfing,” Psyche chided her. “Besides, I don’t think the waves are that big, anyway.”

“The sea otter, remember?” Cazador said. “The albino one some guys have reported seeing. But we’re also going to do some underwater diving to explore the coral reefs.”

“It would be so cool to have an albino sea otter,” Haiku mused.

“I had an albino bunny once,” Asta recalled. “He was so cute! But I’ve never seen an albino anything else.”

“Well, I guarantee that by tomorrow at this time we will have been successful on our quest! We’ve got plenty of tricks to try, and he won’t be able to slip by,” Cazador decreed grandly, and this was followed by the clinking of glasses before they settled down to their meal.

* * *
“Now what are we going to do?” hissed Honeydew after hearing of Cazador’s plans. “If he finds that little white imp first, the whole world will know about it. Skeesicks won’t be happy with us if that happens.”

“You think I don’t know that?” growled Tinder. “Give me some time to think.”

“We don’t have time!”

“Shut up, willya’? Just... shut... up!” Tinder barked, then threw back his chair and stomped from the patio, leaving Honeydew to face the inquisitive looks from the other guests.

* * *
Cazador’s plans had dismayed Garnet as well. “Wishbone,” she whispered, “do you think the albino sea otter Cazador’s searching for could actually be Bobby?”

“Bobby isn’t a sea otter,” pointed out Wishbone.

“Of course he’s not, but think about it. From a distance and without a clear view like we had, he might have looked like a sea otter to whomever spotted him.”

Wishbone stared at his wife. “You’ve got a point there. What will the little guy do if Cazador’s rowdy crew come looking for him?”

“And he’s so trusting,” Garnet worried. “Can you imagine how he’d react to have those five ponies come roaring up to him?”

“Well, I’d assume he’d keep his distance. He’s slippery enough to evade them if he wants to.”

“I suppose that’s true. But... but what if Cazador plans to capture Bobby? He sounds determined to find the creature he’s after, and he seems to have any number of plans to accomplish his goal.”

“Why don’t you ask him?” smiled Wishbone. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind a few interested questions about his techniques. The guy seems to enjoy adulation.”

Wishbone and Garnet both looked to where Cazador and the mares still tarried, the stallion like some potentate with his harem around him.

* * *
“Could you guys tell me more about your enterprise?” Garnet asked sweetly, going over to Cazador’s table and taking in the entire group with her winning smile.

Mitzi gasped. “I didn’t know we had a starship! Awesome!”

Cazador ignored Mitzi and turned to Garnet with a smile of his own. “Hey, you’re one of the ponies from the beach yesterday, aren’t you? Sorry if I was short with you; it happens sometimes when I get engrossed in my work.” He shrugged. “So, what do you want to know?”

“Well... what do you do with these animals you go after?” Garnet put forward.

“Oh, Psyche just trains the camera on them and I say some lines,” Cazador said nonchalantly. “It’s a pretty cool job, actually. Me and the girls were just coming down from Lake Limestone after encountering some really nasty badgers. It was funny, though, because– ”

“So you don’t capture them?” Garnet interrupted.

“Capture them?” Cazador paused to laugh. “Hah, no, the last time I tried that I got this one chick seriously mad at me. But then I landed this show so now I only film the things.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Speaking of which, I wonder how Tiny’s doing. I should stop by and see him again, maybe challenge him to a rematch...”

“Tiny?” Garnet queried. “You mean the Bigfoot? You were in Dream Valley?”

“Yup,” Cazador confirmed. “That was before I got my start in show biz. I wanted to catch this bigfoot I’d heard about to sell to some laboratory and make a name for myself. As it turned out, this chick talked me out of it; but the footage I got of Tiny landed me my own show.” He paused. “And y’know, Tabby really was right; it’s a lot cooler seeing these critters in their native habitats. If I can show them to other ponies and have adventures along the way, I’m happy.”

“You mean you know Tabby?” Garnet asked incredulously.

“I’m pretty sure that was her name,” Cazador acknowledged. “She had a big mansion on the edge of town. Why, do you know her?”

“Yeah, she’s a friend of mine,” Garnet said.

“Cool!” Cazador said. “Yeah, I should see her again, too... how about a trip to Dream Valley, girls? You can see where I got my start and meet Tiny the Bigfoot!”

Cheering broke out around the table. Garnet took the opportunity to escape, a bit concerned about Cazador and his crew breaking up the peace in Dream Valley, but glad to know they had no nefarious intentions in regards to Bobby.

* * *
Garnet and Wishbone were up with the dawning of a new day, anxious to warn the baby sea pony of the arrival of rackety visitors to the beach, even if their only intent was to catch him on film. Having seen Cazador and crew in action yesterday, Garnet knew that any plans they might have would involve a certain amount of pandemonium which would certainly frighten the sea pony and probably send him into hiding; this would solve Bobby’s immediate problem but would prolong the agony as Cazador would not give up his quest until he had the footage he had come to Pearlhaven to get.

To prevent any unnecessary disruption of Bobby’s life, Garnet and Wishbone aspired to convince the baby sea pony to keep a safe distance from the film crew, but to cavort and entertain them within range of their camera lenses so that they would be satisfied to leave him in peace. The two ponies sincerely hoped that Bobby would come out to meet them again today as he had so trustingly done yesterday.

It was not until they were nearing the rocky curvature of the southern arm of the cove that the two ponies began searching the water for a sign of their new friend. Nothing but the gentle lapping of the waves broke the surface of the water although pristine alabaster sea gulls soared overhead, squawking their singular epithets at the brightly-colored invaders of their domain.

“What a racket those birds can make!” griped Wishbone, taking his eyes off the ocean to look up into the soft blue sky to watch the gracefully soaring avian flock.

“We’ve interrupted their breakfast,” surmised Garnet. “I hope they don’t scare Bobby off.”

“Let’s wade out into the water,” suggested Wishbone. “Maybe he’s waiting for us to enter his realm.”

When both ponies were paddling gently in the deeper waters, they were accosted almost immediately by the vivacious sea creature; Bobby circled them, then dove to loop under them, before coming to a splattering stop in front of them.

“Good morning, little fella,” Wishbone greeted, grinning as the sea pony bobbed in rhythm with the ocean’s movement. “Have you been waiting for us?”

For his answer, the sea pony brushed close to Wishbone, then to Garnet, as if his soft touch spoke of his joy at seeing them. Garnet giggled in delight to feel the gentleness of the baby while Bobby continued to cavort around her and Wishbone as if he was expending a surplus of energy that had been bottled up too long. She was just about to explain her and Wishbone’s mission when the sea pony shot away from them, turning to look at them with a beseeching expression for them to follow him. The two ponies did, and Bobby led them on a merry chase of follow-the-leader, his expertise in the watery world enabling him to move and turn with reckless abandon, completely evading his land-based companions. His happy face, however, revealed the fun he was having.

“Let’s split up,” Garnet proposed as she and Wishbone lost track of the baby sea pony temporarily. “Maybe we can convince him to slow down long enough to listen to us if we don’t follow his lead.”

“Fine... with... me...” gasped Wishbone. “Need... to... rest...”

Laughing, Garnet splashed him with water. “Go on toward shore, then, landlubber.” Garnet herself headed in the opposite direction, aiming for the area she had last seen the sea pony, when Bobby came erupting through the surface directly in front of her, his eyes sparkling with delight at having confounded the ponies as to his whereabouts.

“Bobby, let’s swim over by Wish...” the mare was saying when she became aware of something large looming off to her right. With a gasp, she turned to see what it was that was bearing down on her and Bobby just as the smooth sleek side of a motorboat struck her, sending her into unconsciousness, her last impression– the name of the boat, Ne’er Do Well..– flashing into oblivion.

* * *
The cries of the sea gulls seemed more agitated as Wishbone gained the shallow water leading up to the beach; as he plopped down to catch his breath, he looked out over the water to see what had caught the birds’ attention when he caught sight instead of a dark blue sailboat close into shore– too close, he realized. The boat was in the vicinity of where he had taken leave of Garnet.

Clambering to his hooves, Wishbone forgot the fatigue he had been feeling as he pushed himself out to deeper water once again in a frantic effort to locate his wife. There was no sign of her anywhere near the vicinity of the boat, but a quick glance of the surrounding area also proved futile. Neither was there any evidence of the white sea pony.

Swimming for all he was worth, Wishbone concentrated on the sailboat, feeling a sense of foreboding. He recognized the two ponies on the boat: Honeydew and Tinder. Honeydew seemed to be to be working with the motor while Tinder was hauling something– someone!– onto the boat. The brilliant red coloring of the body of that someone identified her as Garnet, limp as a rag doll; and Wishbone intensified his efforts to reach the vessel.

His yell for the occupants of the boat to “Stop!” was drowned out as the motor came to life, and the craft took off for the tip of the rocky arm of the cove, moving away from Wishbone and widening the gap between him and Garnet. It soon became obvious that he was no match for the motorized craft, and the stallion watched in dismay as the boat disappeared around the protruding stretch of rocky shore.

For a moment, Wishbone stopped dead in the water, then with renewed effort he turned and propelled himself back to the beach. The sound of another throbbing engine met his ears; and, for once, he was glad for the presence of Cazador at Pearlhaven.

“Caz!” he gasped, raising his foreleg to signal the stallion of his need for help.

Seeing Wishbone ready to collapse as he staggered out of the ocean, Cazador jumped from the dune buggy and raced to offer his support. Wishbone, however, brushed off his assistance. “They’ve... got... Garnet!”

A stunned look crossed Cazador’s face as his head jerked up to gaze out at the tranquil surface of the water. “Sharks?” He turned back towards the dune buggy and yelled, “Psyche! Ready the camera! I’m goin’ in!”

“Not sharks!” Wishbone took a moment to glare at Cazador’s obtuseness. “Tinder and Honeydew.” As Cazador still looked bemused, Wishbone added, “The two quarrelsome guests at Pearlhaven.”

“Why would anyone kidnap your wife?”

“I don’t know! I just know they did! And I’ve got to find her!” Having regained his breath, Wishbone was ready to dash off in the direction the boat had gone.

“Whoa!” Cazador called, grabbing Wishbone’s foreleg. “What’s your plan?”

“Plan? I’m going to get my wife back!” He yanked his foreleg from Cazador’s grasp and set off.

Cazador shrugged. “Well, girls, we can either let this guy make a mess of his rescue attempt or go after and help. How about it?”

“Yeah!” screamed Mitzi, Haiku, Asta, and Psyche in unison.

* * *
“Why’d ya go and haul her on board?” griped Honeydew, staring down at the wet and still unconscious mare who lay on the deck of the boat. Now that they had rounded the jut of rock, she and her accomplice could breathe easier.

“What? I was supposed to leave her there to drown?” Tinder threw a coiled rope in Honeydew’s direction. “Just get her trussed up so she can’t cause any trouble when she comes to.”

“What about the scamp?” Honeydew bit out as she grabbed at the rope. “Is he okay?”

Glancing over the stern, Tinder nodded. “He seems to be.”

“He’d better be, or Skeesicks will have our hide,” muttered the mare as she wound the ropes tightly around Garnet’s appendages.

Captured in the confines of a sturdy netlike device now trailing the boat, the baby sea pony struggled fruitlessly to pinpoint a means of escape. Finding none, he prepared himself for the first opportunity to match his wits against those of his abductors.

Meanwhile, the boat continued its slow but steady course south, past the rough and rocky shoreline, a complement of sea gulls soaring far overhead.

* * *
“Get in!” Cazador yelled as Haiku stopped the dune buggy just ahead of the running stallion, causing Wishbone to careen into the vehicle. Cazador and Psyche reached out, grabbing the rose-red pony and pulling him aboard, giving him no real choice in the matter.

“Would you please explain what’s going on here?” queried Psyche, keeping a grip on Wishbone’s foreleg as if expecting him to leap off again as Haiku shot the dune buggy forward. “Asta and Mitzi have gone back to Pearlhaven to notify the authorities that something shady’s going on, but we need the details.”

Closing his eyes briefly to gather together his thoughts, Wishbone took a deep breath. “Garnet and I were in the water with Bobby when all of a sudden this boat appeared out of nowhere and hauled Garnet off.”

“And what about this Bobby?” wondered Haiku.

“I... I don’t know. I didn’t see any more of him.”

“Man, you get all freaked out when your wife is abducted but totally forget about your buddy?” Cazador shook his head. “Or was he abducted, too?”

“I didn’t see him in the water or in the boat,” Wishbone admitted. “I assume he swam away when he sensed trouble; he was kinda shy.” He ran his hoof through his mane in a distracted manner.

“You really must not like the guy. He could’ve drowned if the boat hit him,” Cazador commented.

“Bobby? Drown? I doubt that,” Wishbone replied. “He’s a sea pony... a baby, but quite adept at swimming and evading boats.”

“A baby sea pony?” asked an interested Cazador.

“Yeah,” Wishbone looked at Cazador guiltily. “An albino baby sea pony.”

A dawning look of understanding passed between Cazador, Psyche, and Haiku. “So our otter turns out to be a sea pony,” mused Haiku.

“Why didn’t you say something about this last night?” Psyche asked. “Your wife talked with Cazador, after all.”

“We wanted to make sure you didn’t have plans to capture the little fellow,” Wishbone admitted. “And then we wanted to warn him of your approach before you scared him to death. You do come on rather strong, you know.”

Cazador grinned. “There’s no denying that.”

“But we still don’t know why your wife was abducted,” Haiku reminded her passengers.

“What are Honeydew and Tinder after?”

“I don’t know,” moaned Wishbone. His eyes gazed ahead to a point where the land and the sea met; ivory dots circled in the sky, reflecting the suns rays. “But if we catch up to those seagulls, we might find some answers.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” murmured Haiku, stepping on the accelerator with a vengeance.

* * *
The Ne’er Do Well continued its southerly route until a high, steep cliff came into view, at which point the boat began to angle into shore, coming dangerously close to the jagged rocks, but at the last moment slipping through a narrow passageway that fed into a small, hidden inlet, circular in nature, formed from the rough terrain. The engine was cut as the boat pulled near the shore, and Tinder jumped out to drag the hull onto the narrow beach.

“Come on, Sleeping Beauty.” Honeydew prodded Garnet none too gently with her hoof.

With her eyes still closed, the befuddled mare asked, “Where... am... I...?” She had been dreaming: She was resting in a hammock under the trees, nearly asleep from the gentle motion of the hammock in the warm breeze. Sunlight streaming through the treetops dappled her face. She should have been comfortable, but she was not. Her legs felt confined and stiff while her head ached atrociously, throbbing in time to an incessant roaring sound that seemed to swell around her. The noise had suddenly gone silent, but the ache in her head continued and was now joined by a painful jabbing in her side.

She opened her eyes and saw the fuzzy outline of a pony. She quickly closed her eyes again. “Honeydew, what’s going on? I feel terrible.”

“Well, get over it,” Honeydew snapped.

Garnet became aware of the mare fumbling with her back hooves and cranked her eyes open again. Lifting her head, she groaned as a piercing pain shot through it. She forced herself to face the pain, however, and soon was able to make out her surroundings. She gasped when she realized that even though Honeydew was untying a rope around her hind legs, her forelegs were still contained.

Suddenly she remembered being in the water with Bobby and receiving a hard jolt from something– a boat, she realized now, as she looked around. “Where’s Bobby?”

“He’s safe enough,” Tinder said, joining Honeydew on the deck. “Can you stand?” The stallion reached down to pull Garnet to her hooves sending another spasm of pain through her head as if it would explode. She swayed and would have fallen if Honeydew and Tinder had not both offered their support.

“We’ll help you out,” Honeydew said. “You’ll feel better in a minute.”

“I still don’t understand what happened,” Garnet said once her hooves were on the rough beach. “Where are we?” She looked around at the wild setting with no sign of Pearlhaven anywhere.

“Let’s just say you were somewhere where you shouldn’t have been,” Tinder rasped. “We saved you from drowning, but you’ll have to stay here for awhile.”

“Where is here?” ranted Garnet

Honeydew gave Garnet a shove down the beach. “It’s a perfectly private cove where nothing untoward will happen to you. Now, move.”

Stumbling over the uneven terrain, Garnet tried to get her bearings. Their location was completely surrounded by wicked-looking cliffs except for the western side which had a partial barrier of jumbled boulders; there seemed to be only one outlet, and that only large enough for a small craft like Tinder and Honeydew owned. Even if she escaped, she could not swim with her forelegs still tied up and she certainly could not scale the walls of the cliffs. Her only consolation was that Tinder and Honeydew did not seem set on any diabolical deed, just putting her out of commission for awhile.

It dawned on Garnet that Wishbone must have seen her abduction and would be in hot pursuit. All she had to do was be patient, and he would come to her rescue.

It was then that Garnet became aware of a haunting sound in the cove; it seemed to emanate from the water itself– an eerie sound that caused her skin to shiver. “What’s that?” she asked of her escorts while still trying to determine the source of the sound for herself.

“It’s the call of some sea creature or other,” Tinder answered, suddenly forcing Garnet to walk out into the water to a depth that the waves lapped around her waist. “Maybe it’s a bunch of sharks,” he grinned mercilessly. Garnet’s forelegs were yanked forward and tied to something that looked like the top of a trap or cage that was partially submerged. She stared in horror as the ropes were tightened down so that she could barely move, her body plastered against the metal bars of the trap. “What are you doing?”

“Stupid question,” Honeydew snorted, giving the rope one final jerk. She grinned at the disheveled mare. “Just pray that your sweetheart will find you before the tide comes in.”

“You can’t just leave me here!”

“We can’t? Just watch us.”

With a heartless chuckle, Tinder and Honeydew returned to their boat; and with a feeling of complete and total helplessness, Garnet watched as they pulled a net out of the water and over the side of the boat with a struggling white baby sea pony trapped inside.

“Bobby!” she screamed, but the sound of the engine revving up covered her anxious call.

* * *
“The gulls have settled over there!” Psyche pointed out. Barely discernable in the distance, the birds were circling off a high point of land that jutted into the ocean.

“Head straight in that direction,” Cazador ordered Haiku.

“Well,” Haiku said, eyeing the path in front of her, “there are a lot of boulders in the way, and it might beat up the car a bit, but I can probably handle it. Hang on!”

“Err... Haiku, I think he meant ‘head straight’ within reason!” Psyche yelled out.

“I did?” Cazador asked.

“Oh, all right.” Haiku set the dune buggy in motion in as straight a path as she could manage. It turned out to be a zigzag, however, as the huge stones blocked their path right and left.

“I could walk faster than this!” Wishbone growled his impatience.

“Slow and steady,” breathed Psyche as she leaned over Haiku’s shoulder, watching the path close off on all sides.

“We’ll have to hoof it from here,” sighed Haiku, bringing the buggy to a halt at a jumble of huge rocks.

“Even that’s going to be slow goin’,” noted Cazador, eyeing the boulders with distaste. Still, he did not hesitate to tackle the challenge. “Hey, Psyche, be sure to get some shots of this!”

The four ponies began to work their hampered way to where they hoped they would find Garnet.

* * *
Those noises again! Garnet tugged once more on the ropes that bound her, but the knots held tight. The haunting sounds that came as if from the heart of the ocean itself had unsettled her normally cool composure; and she found herself looking anxiously about the cove, nervously waiting for something... the not knowing what that something was disconcerted her.

“Wishbone, where are you?” she whispered into the lonely expanse that surrounded her.

Although the water in the cove was clear, the shadow of the towering cliff cast its darkness in such a manner that Garnet could not identify the marine shapes that occasionally swished by her legs that were submerged in the water. Nothing large had swum by, and she was sure that the strange noise she was hearing was made by something at least as big as she was. The thought was not comforting, considering the restrictions she was now under. She strained at the ropes with all her might, collapsing against the side of the cage she was tethered to with one final sob of frustration that rivaled the troubling sounds from the ocean that so dismayed her. Never had she felt so entirely helpless.

Her eyes dimmed by tears, Garnet only slowly became aware that she was not alone. With a gasp, she looked into the partially submerged cage to see two distinct shapes rising from the hidden depths. For a moment, she was terrified, but as the first of the two creatures broke through the surface of the water, she stifled the scream that threatened to erupt and felt a twinge of hope instead. She was staring into the most beautiful limpid eyes she had ever seen.

“We seem to share a common problem,” the moss green sea pony smiled, her voice a musical sound.

Before Garnet could respond, the second shape had become visible as well. “Our predicament seems to warrant that we try to help one another.” This sea pony was a silver gray color with a rumbling voice. “My name is Nauticus and this is my wife, Frothy.”

“Garnet,” murmured the red mare as her eyes took in every detail of the graceful sea ponies. Bobby had been the first baby sea pony she had ever seen in a natural setting, but he had been a compact little bundle compared to the adults she now beheld. She found herself somewhat in awe.
“Garnet,” Frothy repeated after the earth pony. “We didn’t mean to frighten you.”

“We didn’t make ourselves known to you sooner because we were unsure of just where you stood in this mess we find ourselves in,” elaborated Nauticus.

Shaking her head to clear her mind, Garnet finally found her voice. “Just what transpired to get you caged like this?” She nodded at the heavy metal bars that held the two prisoner. “Why would Tinder and Honeydew do such a thing?”

“We have a son,” Frothy explained, her eyes growing cloudy with sadness. “He is rather... unique... and I’m afraid that made him a prize catch for someone out there who has no scruples or sensitivity. The miscreants who wanted him cunningly trapped the three of us, but our son was small enough to wriggle his way out of the trap.”

“It did effectively prevent us from protecting him, however,” sighed Nauticus.

“Bobby...” Garnet had a vivid recollection of the pain and fear in the baby sea pony’s eyes when she had mentioned his parents. No wonder he had been so lonesome as to seek out her and Wishbone’s company. Her heart went out to the two sea ponies who had been forced to stand by helplessly while their small son was abducted. “I failed him, too.”

Nauticus looked at the pony sharply. “You... you know of our little boy? We haven’t seen him since he escaped these bars; we told him to stay away as Tinder and Honeydew kept a close eye on us in the hopes that he would return and they could get their hooves on him.”

“Pure white, with eyes the color of primrose,” Garnet said. “He befriended my husband and I; we were with him this morning when... when...” Garnet closed her eyes and tried to think of exactly what had transpired. “I was sideswiped by a boat and knocked unconscious. The next thing I knew, Honeydew and Tinder were unloading me from the boat and tying me here. I didn’t know they had Bobby until they pulled a net from the water... and there he was.” The thought of the poor little sea pony caused Garnet to tense against her bindings, to no effect.

“Your Bobby is our Whitewhirl,” Frothy realized, flashing a smile at the mare. “He told us to ‘watch out’ for you, but we weren’t clear as to his meaning.”

“He could have meant for us to help you... or to beware of you,” Nauticus expounded.

With a puzzled frown, Garnet asked, “You said you hadn’t seen Bob... Whitewhirl... since you were captured; how could he have told you about me?”

“We talked while Tinder and Honeydew were busy confining you,” grinned Frothy.

“The sea creatures Tinder mentioned,” further explained Nauticus. “He’s not aware that sea ponies have their own communication methods, so he didn’t suspect us of talking with our son.”

“That haunting sound I heard...” Garnet breathed.

“Yes. Frothy and I were able to provide what comfort we could to Whitewhirl and urge him to take advantage of any opportunity he had to escape. His last plea to us was to watch out for you, Garnet.”

“He’s one special little sea pony to worry about anyone but himself under the circumstances,” mused Garnet. Then, wonderingly, she said, “Whitewhirl never uttered a word to either Wishbone or me, and he never made sounds... like I heard here. I assumed he was too shy to talk.”

“Oh, not our Whitewhirl, not through the old way. For some reason, he has never spoken as you and I are doing now.”

“He doesn’t need to,” giggled Garnet, forgetting her present predicament as she remembered the gentle nudges that Bobby had used to get her and Wishbone to do as he wanted. But, in an instant, her face became serious again. “Do you know where they are taking Bob... Whitewhirl?”

“No, but if we could get out of this contraption,” Nauticus butted the bars, “we could follow the boat and rescue him.”

“You mentioned a husband... Wishbone, was it?” Frothy hinted.

“Yes. Wishbone. I was knocked unconscious, remember, but I can only hope that he wasn’t waylaid by Tinder as well. He’ll come. I know he will.” Garnet’s gaze went to the top of the cliff in the direction of where Wishbone should be. “Please, Wishbone. Hurry!”

* * *
“Ugh!” groaned Cazador as he slipped down the steep incline of the gabillionth boulder he had crawled over and landed unceremoniously on his rump. “You didn’t get that on tape, did you?” he growled at Psyche. The sky-blue pegasus only grinned and winked.

“Hurry up!” exhorted Wishbone. “I think we’ve hit some sort of path or something.” The rose-red stallion shot forward, leaving his compatriots behind. With every passing minute, his heart grew heavier as he thought of Garnet in the hooves of Honeydew and Tinder. How many miles were between them now? The desolation Wishbone felt was unbearable.

He increased his speed on the now open path, determined to cut the distance between himself and his wife. His forward momentum was such that when he came to the top of the cliff, he was hard-pressed to stop his progress and nearly tumbled down over the edge, catching himself only with the aid of a jagged rock near the rim.

Taking several moments to regain his breath, Wishbone looked down the steep incline before him, his gaze settling on the one spot of color in the cove below. “Garnet!” he called, the name catching in his throat as he realized her body was in the water in a somewhat constricted position. “GARNET!” He sent himself sliding down the slope with nary a thought to his own well-being.

* * *
Never would Garnet forget the sight of her hero skidding down the cliff face like some maniac, rushing to her aid, kissing her soundly before releasing her from the bondage of the ropes, and carrying her to the shore where he settled her as gently as possible on the rough terrain before he hugged her to him and let the anxiety, fear, and fatigue catch up to him. He buried his face in her mane while she clung to him as if never to let him go.
It was not until his racing heart had settled into a more comfortable rhythm that Wishbone

could speak. “Garnet, I’ve never been so scared in all my life as when you disappeared in that boat. What reason did they have?” His hoof reached tenderly to push back her mane, exposing the angry-looking bruise that had formed where the boat had struck her. He was appalled. “They hurt you? I’ll...”

“Wishbone!” Garnet captured his hoof, forcing him to rein in his anger. “They were after Bobby, not me. I just happened to get in their way... literally. I was knocked out when the boat struck me, but they didn’t leave me there to drown.”

“Bobby...” Wishbone looked toward the cage, a hazy recollection of two sea ponies coming back to him. It had not been his imagination, for there they were, flesh and blood, with Cazador and Haiku working to release them. “Where’s Bobby?”

“Honeydew and Tinder have him. They got him after I lost consciousness. I couldn’t do a thing to help him when they unloaded me here; and his parents, as you can see, were in no position to help, either.”

At that moment, Haiku succeeded in picking the lock, and the two sea ponies were free. Their one thought, however, was to find their son. They thanked the ponies, verified that Garnet would be fine, and then immediately took off to follow the trail of the motorboat.

Having gotten footage of the rescue of the sea ponies, Psych smiled down on Wishbone and Garnet. “We could use a boat right now ourselves. It’s going to be a tough climb to get out of this cove. Do you think you’re up to it, Garnet?”

“If that’s the only way out, I’ll do it.” She grimaced at Wishbone. “I might need a little help, though.” Wishbone was all gently concern as he guided Garnet to her hooves; the mare stood, swaying slightly, then attempted to take a step. Her legs, still cold and stiff from her watery confinement, collapsed under her, sending both her and Wishbone to the ground. “Um... on second thought, maybe I should rest a little while yet.”

The attention of all the ponies was drawn at that time to the narrow entrance of the cove where an unfamiliar boat staffed by a stern-looking black-maned blue pony, a sash and sword of the Sea Patrol slung from her shoulder, had just come into sight. With the captain were Asta and Mitzi, waving wildly at their friends; and behind them, outside the cove, floated a Sea Patrol ship.

“Well, it looks like the calvary has arrived just in the nick of time,” joked Cazador, “Now all we have to do is track down that albino sea pony before Honeydew and Tinder have a chance to carry their rotten scheme any further.”

Wishbone arched an eyebrow. “That’s all, huh?”

Cazador winked. “Piece of cake.”

* * *
“ARR!” rang out the pirate’s voice. “They cut us off!”

Kracken, the human first mate of Barnacle’s ship, his shoulder-length brown hair blowing in the breeze, maneuvered the vessel around the small motorboat that had indeed come out of nowhere and placed itself in the same path that the pirate ship was following on its way to Port Cactus. “They’ll know not to do it again,” he growled through gritted teeth as the larger ship nearly swamped the toy-like intruder now in its wake.

“An’ what kind-a name is Ne’er Do Well bein’ anyhow? ARR!”

* * *
“Did you see that?” gasped Tinder, as if Honeydew could have missed the forbidding ship that just clipped them in the water. The mare had been lost in a brown study when their boat had veered suddenly, and she had been amazed to see a ship bearing the Jolly Roger.

“Watch where you’re going!” she croaked. “You almost hit it!”

“I... I was watching the shore for landmarks; he came on me unexpectedly,” Tinder tried to explain his ineptness of the moment while fighting for control of his craft.

“It’s going to hit us!” Honeydew croaked, hanging on for dear life and watching in horror as the pirate vessel grazed the starboard side, sending them bobbing like foam in a storm.

“Skeesicks never warned us about this!” Tinder griped. “This is going to cost him.”

“Assuming we make it back to shore,” Honeydew wryly stated as the boat finally began to level off. She eyed the pirate ship distrustfully where it now sat, as if waiting for them to make a move. “I know now how a mouse feels when the cat spots it.”

“Well,” Tinder spouted, “we’ll just have to outwit the cat, now, won’t we?” He grinned as if he might enjoy this encounter after all. Honeydew shook her head and groaned.

* * *
“What’s he doing here?” questioned Key to no one in particular, the expression on her face somewhere between surprise and expectancy.

“Who?” Cazador said, his gaze following the captain’s across the waves to where it came to rest on the formidable ship bearing the pirate’s flag. “Oh my gosh, Psyche, get the camera rolling!” Psyche did not need to be told what to do once she saw the ominous vessel on the horizon. It was an imposing ship whose bearing demanded respect.

“A pirate ship,” Mitzi breathed, her eyes taking on a dreamy aspect while her forehooves attempted to straighten her hair. “How romantic! Does it have a real pirate? Will we get to see him?”

Key shot her a disbelieving look. “Barnacle is a rough and tough buccaneer, Mitzi. I don’t think you’d want get be involved with him.”

“I just want to meet him. I’ve never met a real pirate,” the bright yellow pony pouted, already making plans in case she had to take matters into her own hooves.

With an exasperated huff, Key turned her attention back to the scene before her. All she needed was a ditzy filly getting under her hooves. Using her spyglass, she studied the action, which at the moment involved little, if anything, in the line of drama. The pirate ship merely seemed to be hovering over a much smaller vessel which was hanging back as if uncertain of its next move.

Key lowered her spyglass once she had determined the name on the bow of the motorboat. “Whatever Barnacle’s up to, it involves our friends, Tinder and Honeydew,” she informed her shipmates which now included, along with its regulars, all of Cazador’s crew plus Garnet and Wishbone.

“Barnacle will know how to get Bobby back!” enthused Garnet.

“You know this pirate?” queried Haiku.

“Well... he visits Dream Valley upon occasion.”

“Is he just like Errol Flynn?” Mitzi enthused. “I love his movies!”

“Does he have a parrot?” Asta wanted to know.

“Will he photograph well?” Psyche wondered.

“Would he agree to be on my show?” Cazador asked.

“Could someone bring me an aspirin?” Haiku groaned.

Wishbone grinned at his wife and let her answer the questions.

“He’s the mad, dashing type, if that counts. He’s been known to be in the company of a parrot, Protius by name, who is quite intelligent, I’m led to believe. Barnacle will photograph well, but not willingly; and as for being on your show, he’ll probably demand some of the profits. And, Haiku, if you find an aspirin, I could use one, too.” She put her hoof to her head where the Ne’er Do Well had struck her.

With a wave of her hoof, Key commissioned one of her underlings to fetch the medical kit for the desired pain reliever without taking her eyes off Barnacle’s ship and the Ne’er Do Well. By this time, her own vessel, the Yagamo was closing the gap between them.

Captain Key, true to her training, did not flinch a bit when one of the weapons on the pirate ship swung around with the Yagamo in its sites.

* * *
“ARR!” Barnacle ranted. “It’s the vigilantes!”

“Since when does the Sea Patrol bother itself with petty infractions of points of etiquette between pilots?” hissed Kracken, holding the ship in position.

“With my luck, it’s that Key again,” sputtered Barnacle. “She’ll haul me in for sure.” The pirate did some quick thinking. “Davey! Jones!” he thundered. “Ready the port cannon!”

The two Jamaican Bushwoolies, long-time members of Barnacle’s crew, scurried to fulfill their captain’s order, colliding with one another midship and collapsing onto their backsides for a stunned second or two before regaining their feet and bringing the required weapon around to challenge the Yagamo.

“Hey, mon! My turn! My turn!” Davey crowed, eyeing the waiting cannonball with glee.

Jones shook his head in the negative while saying, “Sorry, mon! My turn! My turn!”

“Big boom!” Davey bounced and flung his arms skyward, his eyes rivaling the moony look that was simultaneously lighting Mitzi’s aboard the Yagamo.

Jones’ eyes glazed over, too. “Flotsam everywhere, mon,” he sighed.

“ARR!” Barnacle called to the two woolie crewmembers. “We’ll be takin’ no action until we be findin’ out just what the enemy... er... Sea Patrol... be wantin’.”

* * *
“Look! Over there!” Garnet called, pointing to two sea ponies near the ship, one green and one gray, blending into the ocean, yet caught by Garnet’s sharp eyes. “Bobby’s parents!”

“Ask them if their son is still prisoner on the motorboat,” ordered Key, who was debating yet on what to do about the cannon pointed in their direction.

Frothy and Nauticus soon verified that Bobby definitely remained a captive of Honeydew and Tinder. “He’s still in the net under a tarp,” Nauticus added, a note of anger creeping into his voice.

“The poor little thing,” Asta pouted. “Somebody’s got to do something.”

“This would be a lot simpler if the pirate ship wasn’t making hostile threats,” voiced Key censoriously. “I can’t be sure they’re not with Tinder and Honeydew on this escapade; if I approach the motorboat, Barnacle might retaliate. I can’t take that chance with so many civilians aboard.”

The sea ponies were able to set Key’s mind to rest on that point. “The motorboat came upon the pirate ship quite unexpectedly,” Frothy stated. “I believe they piqued the pirate,” she noted judiciously.

“Well, if that’s the case,” Key decided, “let’s move in.” Her capable crew obeyed her instantly, moving the vessel slowly forward to intercept the Ne’er Do Well.

* * *
However, on the pirate ship, Davey and Jones were still in a rather heated discussion concerning whose turn it was to operate the cannon. Their being twins did nothing to help their ability to remember past events with the same degree of clarity. Davey was adamant that Jones had triggered the cannon during the altercation off Latal while Jones was equally certain that Davey had been given that honor.

The Bushwoolies were both so preoccupied with their argument that they did not realize where their actions were heading.

“You loaded cannon, like this, mon,” croaked Jones, dropping the cannonball into the aperture, his temper causing his dreadlocks to stick out from his head like horns.

“Yeah, mon, but you lit fuse,” countered Davey, striking a match which reflected in his angry eyes, and applying it to the thick cord.

“You picked target, mon,” choked Jones, placing his hand on the cannon and giving it a shove.

“You...” began Davey, but his voice was drowned out by the roaring volley of the projectile shooting out of the cannon in a wild trajectory across the water, throwing both battling Bushwoolies once more unceremoniously onto the deck on their backs, this time their eyes wide with horror and disbelief.

Barnacle and Kracken, both absorbed in the politics of staying clear of Key’s authority, were no less shocked at hearing one of their weapons put into operation.

“Davey!” groaned Barnacle.

“Jones!” lamented Kracken.

“It’s the brig for sure, ARR!”

* * *
The Fates were with Barnacle that day, as the cannonball shot out in winged flight over the blue ocean, its course one of rather short duration as Jones’ angry prod had aimed the missile in a downward trajectory.

The spectators on board the Yagamo watched in stunned disbelief as the cannonball launched, time seemingly caught in a slow-motion sequence from their front row seats. Between them and the pirate ship idled the Ne’er Do Well like a sitting duck

Honeydew and Tinder had watched in terror as the cannon had been manipulated by the Bushwoolies, their nearness to the pirate ship making their susceptibility all too apparent. The cannon had been aimed directly at them.

With the sound of the explosion that sent the cannonball free, Honeydew and Tinder threw themselves to the floor of their vessel and covered their heads. Their terror increased as they felt the craft shudder and heard the ripping of the furthermost part of the bow into shreds. When the flotsam had settled, they lifted their heads in a daze.

Key reacted swiftly and surely, sending her most able trio of operatives to secure and recover the miscreants now cowering on the slowly settling motorboat. Two of the Sea Patrol officers soon had Tinder and Honeydew in custody while the third rescued Whitewhirl from his confinement.

As soon as he was free, the baby sea pony lost no time in scuttling overboard to join his worried parents. After a heartwarming reunion, the family dipped under the waves and disappeared, causing Garnet a moment of grief.

“We may never see them again,” she sighed.

“But maybe we will,” Wishbone comforted her. He drew her close and together they stood watching the spot where the sea ponies had disappeared, remembering their precious time with the vivacious white baby.

* * *
Pearlhaven was diffused with a soft pink glow as the sun set languorously in the tranquil sea. The villa’s manager, Cleo, was dismayed to find that she had been harboring criminal types at her upscale establishment and was even more disconcerted that Tinder and Honeydew had treated Garnet so shoddily as to injure and abduct her. She solicitously granted Garnet and Wishbone gratuitous lodging to compensate for their unfortunate experience, and she also arranged a rather festive evening to celebrate the outcome. Chef Camembert had been delighted to employ his culinary expertise for such a celebratory occasion.

Congregated on the terrace overlooking the sea were Key and a number of her officers, Cazador and crew, Barnacle and Kracken (Davey and Jones were confined to deck, but they could actually be seen on the pirate ship offshore hanging from the crow’s nest), Garnet and Wishbone, and various workers of Pearlhaven itself who were given permission to join in the festivities as their duties permitted.

“So Tinder and Honeydew were being paid by some rich eccentric to haul off the baby sea pony?” queried Psyche.

“That’s the gist of it,” Key confirmed. “The wretch is known as Skeesicks, and he has already accumulated quite a collection of albino ‘pets’. The proper authorities will be investigating his dealings more thoroughly after this latest escapade.”

“What a creep!” Mitzi put forth. “Shanghaiing defenseless little creatures is so low.”

“Not to mention running down ponies with a boat,” added Key. “Are you sure you’re okay, Garnet?”

“Other than a few bruises, I’m fine,” smiled the red mare. “Knowing that Bobby was reunited with his parents gave the entire ordeal a very happy ending, especially with Tinder and Honeydew where they belong.”

“ARR! Me thinks those two brigands will think twice before they dare enter these waters again.”

“Your help was most... effective... Barnacle,” Key condescended to say. “I might suggest, however, that you keep a closer eye on your crew.”

“They’ve been properly reprimanded, ma’am,” acknowledged Kracken with a slight bow in the Sea Patrol captain’s direction. “Davey and Jones will use more discretion in the future.” His words, however, were belied by a duet of descending screams from the direction of Barnacle’s ship followed by two heavy splashes in the water. Kracken’s eyes narrowed, but he otherwise feigned ignorance of the implications.

Barnacle, on the other hoof, chuckled a deep pirate’s chuckle. “There be no holdin’ down them two scamps!”

“Dinner is served,” intoned Quicksand, his attempt at formality falling rather flat. He grinned at the guests. “Camembert says that the food is at the peak of perfection right now, and he urges you to take your places to dine.” He waved his hoof in the direction of the assembled tables that were grouped in intimate settings for quiet dinner conversation, and everyone was soon seated and enjoying the chef’s tasty offerings.

“Not a bad ending to our day’s adventure,” Wishbone softly said to his wife as the two of them enjoyed their food which had been climaxed with a refreshing orange sherbet. “I only wish it had been me to take the knock in the head to spare you the pain.” The young stallion had been regretting his decision to head for shore that morning, leaving Garnet at the mercy of Tinder and Honeydew.

“We know what happens when you get knocked out,” Garnet teased, remembering Wishbone’s temporary blindness after sustaining a hard hit from a falling tree. “I haven’t faired nearly as badly.”

Garnet suddenly raised her head as if listening to some elusive sound. “Wishbone,” she whispered, “the sea ponies are back.”

“Wha...” The stallion cocked his head. “That’s what their primordial speech sounds like?” he said, finally tuning in to the venerable resonance. “It’s even more unearthly than you described.”

“Come,” commanded Garnet, getting to her hooves. Many of the other guests had already left the tables to form new groupings to dance or converse or walk in the romantic moonlight that now shimmered over Pearlhaven. She and Wishbone quietly set out for the beach in the direction of the subtle summons of the sea ponies.

Reflecting the moonlight like a pearlescent alien, Bobby frolicked in the shallows while his parents waited patiently further offshore. Garnet and Wishbone waded out to join the exuberant little sea pony in his cavorting, and Garnet giggled as Bobby showered them with glistening drops of water before coming to settle before them, bobbing as was his wont. His raspberry pink eyes gleamed with a vibrant joy.

“You’re okay, aren’t you, Bobby?” questioned Garnet reaching out to touch the little fellow’s soft cheek.

In answer, Bobby grinned, then performed a series of fluid twists and turns that carried him in and out of the water in rapid succession before once more coming to rest near them.

“I guess that’s a yes,” drawled Wishbone.

“Bobby has suffered no ill-effects,” verified Nauticus, using the name Garnet and Wishbone had given to his son. He and Frothy had moved closer to the trio.

“We wanted to convey our sincere thanks for your help in freeing us from that awful cage,” Frothy smiled. “Without your intervention, Bobby would be lost to us.” A lone tear melded with the ocean brine.

“Yes, Garnet... Wishbone... we will always hold you in our fondest memories; and your friends, too, of course,” Nauticus added.

“Does... does that mean... you’re leaving?” Garnet asked rather sadly.

“We are leaving,” Frothy explained, “but we are going home where we were headed when our little Whitewhirl decided to make his entrance into the world a bit ahead of schedule. We stayed in the area to give him a chance to grow and mature before setting off on our long journey, but we’ve learned that he’s already able to face anything life can throw at him.” She looked fondly upon her albino son.

“Bobby... Whitewhirl... we’ll never forget you,” Garnet whispered. She gently hugged the baby sea pony to her and kissed his forehead. “May your angel always watch over you.”

“Yeah, Bobby, keep yourself out of trouble,” huskily said Wishbone, tousling the little fellow’s mane.

A dispirited look settled over his face for a brief moment before Whitewhirl leaped into the air and hit the water with a loud slap. He circled Garnet and Wishbone, then came to a brief halt almost to their noses. He planted a kiss on each of the ponies’ faces, then grinned flippantly at them. “My friends,” he said clearly before launching himself toward his parents.

Whitewhirl swam between Frothy and Nauticus who called goodbye to the two ponies before following their son to the open sea. The last sight of them that Garnet and Wishbone had was a perfectly coordinated leap of three moon-drenched bodies that gracefully sank into the void. And they were gone.

“What’d we miss?” called Cazador as he rushed down to the beach. “Someone said the sea ponies were here.”

“They came to say goodbye,” softly said Garnet, still gazing out to sea.

“They’re returning to their home,” Wishbone explained. “Bobby’s old enough now to make the trip to... where?” He turned to Garnet. “Where is home?”

“I... I don’t know,” admitted the mare.

“I’ve heard,” said Cazador, “that a majority of the sea ponies hang out around a group of islands in the southern seas. I’d imagine that’s where they’re headed.”

Key, who stood at the edge of the group staring to the horizon, smiled slightly. “Have no fear for your new friends; I promise you they will have a safe journey.” She paused as if carefully weighing her next words. “And, someday, I’d not be surprised to see an adult albino sea pony visit these shores again.”

“ARR!” roared Barnacle as if verifying Key’s words.

After the others had slowly meandered back toward Pearlhaven, Garnet and Wishbone still stood at the water’s edge, hesitant to let go of the special time they had shared with the little sea pony. With the waves lapping at their hooves, Wishbone drew his wife close. “You aren’t sad now, are you?”

“Me? Sad? Why would I be?” countered the mare, brushing a tear off her cheek.

“Oh, I just thought you might be missing Bobby already,” he said. He nuzzled her neck. “I just want you to know that I’m perfectly willing to help take your mind off his departure.” His lips found there way to hers, and he was in a fair way to completely pointing Garnet’s thoughts in a new direction when an odd yet familiar sound was heard.

“Ya, mon, told you shore was this way.”

“None... too... soon... ya... ” uttered a second weary voice.

Garnet and Wishbone raised their heads in time to see two water-logged Bushwoolies, their dreadlocks dangling about their faces like water serpents, clinging to a floating piece of driftwood that looked as if it had crossed the ocean a time or two. As the rising tide dumped them on shore, both Bushwoolies collapsed on their backs in the wet sand.

“Made it, mon.”

“Made it?” There was a significant pause. “You’re sure?” Davey’s... or was it Jones’?... hand slowly reached out to touch solid ground to attest to that fact for himself. Finding it to be the truth, he sat up with renewed energy. “Yeah! Where’s the party?” He was on his feet in no time, his nose unerringly leading him toward the terrace.

“Party! Go, mon!” The second Bushwoolie lost no time in catching up to his brother.

Garnet and Wishbone shared a grin, then followed the Bushwoolies so as not to miss out on the fun. They were not disappointed. Catching sight of the new arrivals, Key groaned. “Kracken, I put those two under your jurisdiction.”

The usually cheerful first mate grimaced. “So you did, ma’am. And they were confined to the ship.” He scowled menacingly at Davey and Jones who were too busy surveying the leftover food and other delights to notice.

“ARR! Bring out more grog!” ordered Barnacle.

For a moment, Key looked as if she was going to exert her power of command; but contemplating the ill-assorted group of revelers, she simply shrugged her shoulders. “More grog, indeed!” she concurred.

Garnet and Wishbone raised their tankards in a mutual salute. “Marriage to you will never be dull... if our honeymoon is any indication,” Wishbone stated.

“Dull, my dear husband?” Garnet asked, an eyebrow raised. “Never!”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A New Nemesis?
by Tabby (TabbyMLP@aol.com)


“Hmm? What’s this?” Tabby was sitting on the floor, tossing random items out of her suitcase onto the hotel room carpeting. She lifted out a crumbly old scroll. Where had such a thing come from? She eyed it speculatively, and the frayed gold ribbon that tied it shut. Oh, now she recognized it. It had been a wedding gift from the Mysterious Guy with the St. Bernard three years ago. Still, she knew she hadn’t packed it for this weekend trip to New Pony with Thomas to attend a veterinary conference. So how had it ended up in her suitcase? Shrugging, she added it to the growing pile of items.

“Neat and orderly as always, I see,” Thomas said, reentering the room after taking care of a quick errand.

“What?” Tabby eyed the pile again and then giggled. “Sorry. I was just picking out relevant items on the magic injections for tomorrow.”

“Well, I just picked up a message in the lobby. Steuben has invited us to dinner with his wife this evening.”

“Hooray!” said Tabby. “This will be fun.”
“Yes,” Thomas agreed. “I’m looking forward to seeing them again.”

* * *
After a rough scene break, the dinner party commenced at Steuben’s large house in a ritzy section of New Pony. Tabby was meeting the veterinarian and his wife, Spindrift, for the first time, but Thomas was already quite well acquainted.

After introductions had been concluded– Tabby immediately warmed up to both strangers– Thomas explained for Tabby’s benefit, “Steuben was invaluable to me in getting set up in this field. I did my internship for him in college, and after graduation he helped me land a real job.”

“Not to mention all the dinners he took with us,” Spindrift smiled kindly. “It’s so pleasant to see you again, Thomas, and of course your lovely wife, too. I did often wonder what had happened to you after you left Parkside.”

“Yes, it’s unfortunate we got out of touch then,” Steuben agreed. “That’s something we’ll need to rectify in the future. In the meantime, though, I’m very excited by this opportunity to learn more about these magic injections. What a coincidence it was to find out that your wife was involved with them at one time! Perhaps, my dear,” he extended his foreleg to Tabby, “you could give me some background information on your injections before the meeting tomorrow.”

Tabby giggled and accepted the gesture, and Steuben led her to be seated across the room. Spindrift was left looking accusingly at Thomas.

“You could have at least invited us to the wedding,” she said, eyeing him with reserve.

“Oh... well...” Thomas laughed nervously. “I didn’t think you two would want to be bothered by an annoying college student you’d known once.”

“Oh, nonsense!” Spindrift scoffed. “You were never annoying, just inquisitive. Steuben always loved going over pet diagnoses with you, because you had such unique insight into them...” Her face softened, and she smiled again, hugging him. “Well, I am glad that you’re here now. Welcome back to New Pony.”

“It feels a lot like home now,” Thomas grinned back.

* * *
The next morning, a variety of veterinarians from all across the country congregated in a large meeting room at Steuben’s veterinary complex. All of them had been specifically picked to attend due to their knowledge of magic injections or their insight into animal care.

Clearing his throat, Steuben stood at the front of the room and explained the purpose of the meeting. “We gather here today in order to investigate more fully the miraculous healing qualities of the so-called ‘magic injections’. For years rumors have been heard of this incredible medicine, and some veterinarians have even had the pleasure to administer it. Unfortunately, the recipe has proved to be unstable and impossible to mass-produce. But recently come to light is a talented young veterinarian who claims to have successfully stabilized the magic injection potion to be used across the country in any time or place. If proven to work, this would revolutionize the field of veterinary medicine... if the magic injections are as powerful as some of you have witnessed. Now, may I present to you, Dr. Marina!”

A bright blue mare came prancing into the room and took Steuben’s place at the front as the stallion took his seat. “Hello, everyone,” she said brightly, swinging her brilliant aquamarine hair. “As Dr. Steuben here was just telling you, it would be a fabulous thing if the magic injections could be mass-produced. Unfortunately, all the recipes uncovered so far have ‘expired’, and even then they only worked in certain regions. I have been a long-time researcher of the formula, however, and I believe that I have just made a major breakthrough in their creation!” Marina paused for dramatic effect. “Now, who here has used the magic injections before? Does anyone know their ingredients?”

Feeling proud of herself for knowing the answer, Tabby promptly spoke up, “It is composed of sphinx mushrooms, krulototite, and black blood of the earth.”

“Very good!” Marina praised her. “Only three ingredients, sphinx mushrooms, krulototite, and black blood of the earth. It is the same formula for every recipe I have researched, what all magic injections are based on. When mixed together in certain places and certain times, these three items are endowed with a special magic quality that gives them their healing power. I’m still not sure of the source of this power, but in each region in which the injections appear, their power only lasts for a limited amount of time. There is still much work to be done in uncovering the root cause of this magic, but I believe I have found a way to bypass it by use of a different strain of magic.” Marina smiled dazzlingly at her audience. “I won’t go into details, since magic is a very difficult thing to explain, but allow me to demonstrate for you.” Snapping her hooves, the door opened and an assistant wheeled in a cart with a metal cage on top. Marina whipped out a syringe from her bag and lifted a little grey creature out of the cage. “This little mouse was badly injured in a mousetrap, but still lives, even though his legs are quite battered. But, watch!” Taking the syringe, she injected it into the rodent’s body. Immediately tissue and fur regrew itself; and in a matter of seconds the mouse was on his paws again, trying to escape.

Marina turned to her audience and smiled brightly. A spattering of polite applause broke out, and she deposited the mouse back into the cage. “As you can see, all experiments performed with my formula have been an absolute success. With these, veterinary care will be a cinch, since no ailment is too small or too big for the magic injections to handle. Of course, we may have to all start looking for new jobs after awhile,” she winked at her audience, “but that’s a small price to pay for the well-being of all of Ponyland’s pets.”

Tabby suddenly spoke up. “Wait a second. The effects of the magic injections I used wore off after about a year and the injections didn’t have any effect on animals that had previously received them. Even if the recipe lasts, will the effects on injected animals continue?”

Dr. Marina looked at her condescendingly. “My injections are superior in every way, I assure you. Of course, it will take time to determine for certain, but I have every reason to believe that my advanced formula is permanent in its effect.”

“Oh,” said Tabby. She sank back into her chair, positive everyone was looking at her and laughing after that remarkably condescending glance Marina had bestowed on her.

Tabby was imagining their reaction, however. At that point a number of the other participants started asking questions, and the session dragged on for a long time. The general consensus seemed favorable to Dr. Marina’s medical finds. Tabby tapped her hoof on the table meditatively.

At the end of the day, the formal meeting broke up; but most of the ponies remained for informal chatter and further questions for Dr. Marina. Tabby had wandered over to the mouse cage at the front of the room when Marina sidled up to her, finally escaping her latest questioning.

“It’s too bad most of the guys here are so geeky,” Marina whispered conspiratorially to Tabby. “I was glad to finally see that stallion that came in with you. He’s pretty cute. Do you know him well?”

“He’s my husband,” Tabby hissed back.

“Oooh,” the mare nodded knowingly. “I see. Oh well.”

“This mouse seems a bit... violent,” Tabby commented, turning her attention back to the cage after glaring at the blue unicorn.

Marina shrugged. “Oh, so they get a little bit testy. That’s no big deal, is it?”

Tabby watched the little mouse bare its teeth and lunge at the bars of its cage. She imagined either of Thomas’ Siamese, or even her crayfish, coming at her like that. She shuddered, and refrained from answering the question. “What kind of magic exactly did you use?”

“Oh, I just adapted something from an old family tome to work with the formula,” Marina replied vaguely. “But if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone over there I have to speak with. Catch ya later.” Waving insolently, she wandered off.

Tabby tapped her hoof on the floor, blankly staring off into space. On the outside, Marina seemed smart and friendly. But there was some undercurrent Tabby was picking up on– of hostility? fear? smugness? Or was it just Tabby’s imagination? She wasn’t sure, but something didn’t seem right with Marina and her injections.

Steuben, noticing Tabby’s pensive expression, walked up to her and engaged her in conversation. “A very enlightening conference, wouldn’t you say, Tabby?” he pronounced jovially.

“What?” Tabby’s head snapped up. “Er... yes, very enlightening.”

“I can see your thoughts are elsewhere,” the older pony chuckled. “So tell me, what do you think of Marina and her injections? Since you took part in making one of your own once, you should have some insights into her method.”

“She really didn’t go into much detail of her method,” Tabby said seriously. “It seems... very...”

“Yes?” Steuben prodded.

“I don’t know,” Tabby finished anticlimactically.

Steuben looked taken aback. “You have uncertainties?”

“No... or maybe yes. I’m not sure.” Tabby shook her head to clear her thoughts. “She’s entirely too reticent on their magical properties, however. If they could be tested, separated into component elements... hmm...” she mused.

“I see,” Steuben said, not discarding his old protege’s wife’s reservations but also unwilling to find any fault in his new “pet” doctor and her finds. “My knowledge of magic is limited, of course, so I don’t have any insight myself. Her formula seems sound otherwise, though, wouldn’t you say?”

“I can’t find fault with the other ingredients,” Tabby admitted. “But I am still curious about the magic involved. I asked Dr. Marina about it myself, but she was rather vague on the matter.”

“Really?” Steuben sounded surprised. “Well, I’m sure it’s nothing to be concerned about.

Still, perhaps you’d like a sample injection to study on your own, if it would set your mind at ease.”

“That might prove interesting,” Tabby said, narrowing her eyes contemplatively.

“Remind me tomorrow,” Steuben said, inclining his head respectfully. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I see Gilly is about to leave and I wanted to ask her about an operation she was conducting...” The stallion hurried off and Tabby was left on her own again. She crossed the room to rejoin her husband and found him in conversation with Marina and a stallion Tabby recognized from the past. Tabby’s face became stony as she came upon the group.

“Thaddeus! What are you doing here?” Tabby came to stand in front of the yellow stallion and pinned him with an accusatory stare.

“Uh... hi... Tabby?” Thaddeus said haltingly, looking up at her.

“I hardly think you’re of high enough caliber to be here at this meeting.” Tabby crossed her forelegs. “After what you did to our clinic that Christmas...” Her hooves clenched in unquestionable anger. Several years ago, Thaddeus (a college friend of Elaine) had been given charge of the Dream Valley clinic over the Christmas holidays while Tabby and Thomas were away on vacation. Thaddeus was well-meaning but rather clumsy. The entire clinic had practically been in shambles after Christmas, and Tabby had never quite been able to forgive him for the offensive blight it had taken days to get in order again.

Thomas sent Tabby a warning glance as the other stallion stuttered a reply. “Oh, well,” Thaddeus flushed bright red, “Steuben actually just has me here taking notes.”

Marina sent Tabby an I-told-you-so look concerning nerdy stallions, but egged Thaddeus on anyway. “And you were a very good note-taker,” she assured him, going to hang off his foreleg. “Would you perhaps be so kind as to go and fetch me a glass of punch?”

“Sure. Anything you want, Marina,” Thaddeus blushed again and ran off on his errand.

“He is kinda sweet, but not the sort I’d want for an admirer,” said Marina critically as she watched him go.

“Or for a temporary fill-in,” Tabby said cryptically.

Marina looked curious. “Why, what experience do you have with him?”

“It was dreadful. You wouldn’t believe the destruction he wrought in our office after just one week of having him fill-in,” Tabby declared in melodramatic overtones.

“Now, Tabby,” Thomas was able to break-in for the first time since his wife had arrived on the scene, “he did apologize for that, and he didn’t do it on purpose.”

“I cannot comprehend how a single stallion,” Tabby went on unheedingly, “could knock that many shelves over. And judging from the condition of the desk drawers, I swear he managed to drop each of them upside down at one time or another!”

“How gruesome,” Marina said in captive awe.

“It was worse than gruesome,” Tabby assured her. “We have had wild animals loose in those rooms that have done less damage! Why, the x-ray machine was damaged beyond repair and I didn’t even know it could be knocked over!”

“Actually, it just needed a single replacement part,” Thomas corrected.

“It sounds dreadful,” Marina sympathized. “I did think he looked like the clumsy type the first time I set eyes on him this morning. Apparently I was correct.”

“Oooh,” Tabby said, looking across the room. “I think he just spilled your punch on another girl.”

Marina giggled at the sight. The petite creamy-beige pony with glasses and punch-stained pastel green hair looked rather starstruck at the stammering stallion that had suddenly appeared in her life. Thaddeus looked equally affected. “Well, it looks like he’ll be otherwise occupied for the time being. Shall we sit down and have a nice chat? You two must have such an interesting life! I want to hear more! Thomas was just telling me about the mysterious summons that caused him to come to Dream Valley, and Steuben mentioned something about a Bigfoot connection you had, Tabby, with knowledge of the magic injections...”

So the three proceeded to have a comfortable coze. Tabby always liked telling embellished accounts of her various adventures. Occasionally Thomas inserted comments to tone down the exaggerations, which caused Tabby to call him “boring”. Marina listened, enraptured, but when questioned about her own life she had remarkably little to say. The only fact she revealed about herself was that she had a small private practice in the country and catered to the smaller communities scattered around the outskirts of New Pony.

Eventually, though, Marina took her leave of them. “This has all been so interesting,” she said earnestly, “but I’m afraid I’ve taken up enough of your time.” She extended a hoof to each of them. “I’ve loved meeting you both and I trust I’ll see you again tomorrow?”

“I’ll– we’ll be looking forward to it,” Thomas said warmly. A bit too warmly, Tabby considered?

“Yes,” Tabby agreed after a slight pause.

“I’m glad to have been able to meet Marina,” Thomas commented on the way out. Tabby’s mind, in its current mode, noted that the “Dr.” prefix had been dropped. “She hasn’t let this fame over her discovery go to her head at all. And she’s so intelligent and friendly.”

“Something is strange, though.” Tabby frowned and Thomas looked puzzled.

“I thought the two of you were getting along great,” he said.

“We were,” Tabby said, but she continued to look pensive.

Thomas looked at her curiously. “Are you all right? You don’t usually look so serious.”

“I trust that was meant as a compliment,” Tabby said archly. “But never mind. I’m not sure what I’m thinking yet. But can we go shopping now? It’ll help clear my head.”

“Sure,” Thomas said, finding her thoughtful attitude unnerving for its unusualness. But obviously she wasn’t going to say what was on her mind. Hopefully shopping would turn her back to her usual cheerful scatterbrained self.

For awhile, it worked. The remainder of the day and part of the evening was spent covering every single store Tabby could find in New Pony that carried toys, and she was caught up in the thrill of shopping. Spike had given her a long list of action figures to look for, and of course there were My Little People for Tabby’s own enjoyment!

“Isn’t this exciting? Isn’t this exciting?” Tabby squealed upon seeing yet another huge display of My Little People. She frantically started rummaging through the pegs. “It will be months yet before any of these things start showing up in Dream Valley! This is so cool! Here, hold these.” She shoved a pile of My Little People packages at her husband before dashing off to the next aisle.

Finally, even Tabby’s hooves hurt, so she agreed it was time to go back to the hotel for supper... even if there was that one last toy store they hadn’t gotten to. She sighed longingly. Well, maybe tomorrow. Thomas had been relegated to the task of carrying all of Tabby’s bags for her, so it was with relief when he was finally able to drop everything off back in the hotel room.

Over dinner at the hotel restaurant, though, Tabby had time to think again about everything that had happened earlier that day– namely, what had happened in regard to Marina. She picked at her food lethargically, staring down at her plate pensively.

“All right, what’s on your mind?” Thomas couldn’t take the silence any more and stared across the table at her intently. “I thought you were usually in a good mood after a successful shopping trip.”

“Well...” Tabby randomly twirled her fork around. “I’m concerned about Dr. Marina.”

“Concerned?” Thomas looked taken aback. “I’m sure she’s not in any danger.”

“No, no,” Tabby shook her head. “I mean that I’m concerned that’s she up to something... evil.”

What? Where did you get this idea?” The utensil Thomas had been holding dropped down to the table with a clang.

“Did you take a close look at the mouse she treated? It was positively evil!” Tabby insisted, warming up to the subject. “What if Marina’s injections do that to all animals?”

“How do you know the mouse wasn’t like that to begin with?” Thomas said skeptically. “He was severely injured, taken from his home, stuck in a cage, and put on display. I don’t think any animal would adapt well to that situation.”

“This was unnatural,” Tabby persisted.

“Is one ill-tempered mouse all that’s got you worried?” Thomas looked at her carefully. “Might you be overreacting?”

“It’s just...” Tabby hesitated. “...there’s something about Marina... I can’t say what... instinct or whatever... but I feel that she’s not entirely on the up-and-up!”

“I see.” Thomas still looked unconvinced.

“Marina seems good and reasonable and all that, but what if that’s just a cover-up?” Tabby pressed on. “What if she’s really planning something evil? What if she means to turn all pets in Ponyland evil? What if...”

“Tabby,” Thomas said firmly. “It’s been a long day, and you’re exhausted. It’s really no surprise that you’re blowing this out of proportion.”

“You mean you don’t believe me?” Tabby’s face fell. “But...”

“Everything’s going to look a lot better in the morning. Believe me.”

“It might,” Tabby said sullenly.

“It will. Come on. You’re going to bed.”

* * *
Tabby fell into a fitful slumber. She kept having nightmares... nightmares about Marina, surrounded by followers, and all of them laughing hysterically at her. Nobody would believe her! She tried to scream and shout that Marina was a fraud, but it came out in barely a whisper. And they only laughed all the harder at her for it.

Finally she couldn’t take it anymore and sat bolt upright in bed. There was something wrong about mass-produced magic injections. She could feel it, but she couldn’t prove it. But– what if she was wrong? What if Marina was an honest researcher? What if Tabby was just being overcritical?

And suddenly it came to her. The scroll. The mysterious scroll she had tossed aside during her unpacking, the scroll she was certain she had not packed. It had been a gift from the Mysterious Dude with the St. Bernard. The Mysterious Dude with the St. Bernard had also given her and Tiny the recipe for magic injections once. Might there be something pertinent on the scroll–?

Well, only one way to find out! Tabby jumped out of bed and cautiously made her way towards her suitcase leaning against the desk. Remembering seeing a flashlight sitting on the desk earlier, she managed to snag that without making any loud noises and shine its weak beam onto her luggage where all her papers were stored. She dug through all the compartments frantically and finally dumped everything on the floor. All her literature on the magic injections was here– but not the scroll that had mysteriously found its way into her suitcase. Where had it gone?! When she finally decided she needed it–!

Oh, wait, there it was. It had rolled under the desk. Tabby grasped it, untied the ribbon it was wrapped with, and carefully rolled it out in front of her. As she read the words printed on it, a smug smile broke across her face. It read as follows:



When I developed the formula for the magic injection, it was my intention to have them used only in dire circumstances when there was no other hope of saving an animal’s life. I did not wish the Little Ponies to grow dependent upon this magic, however. If they did there would be no further medical discoveries and there would be nothing to strive for in the future, nothing to work towards. Because of this I will limit each formula that I hand out, so that they will not become permanent and depended upon. In the meantime, I hope that every pony will continue searching for natural ways to better the lives of all the inhabitants of this land, without relying on outside aid. Signed, Lacretius Holbrook, August 16, 1901.



Hah! I knew it! Something’s definitely wrong with Marina’s injections, Tabby gloated. But even though this told Tabby her instincts had been correct, she knew that this crumbly piece of paper wouldn’t prove anything to the scientific vets at the conference. She needed some further evidence. And when Tabby wanted to do something, she wanted to do it now. Even if “now” was one o’clock a.m., that wasn’t going to stop her.

So she furtively opened up the door and slipped into the dark hallway.

* * *
It was one-thirty in the morning and Tabby was nowhere to be seen. It was certain that she was off doing something foolish and probably dangerous. Thomas’ gaze fell on the pile of papers scattered on the floor, all the info she had collected on the magic injections. Was she still that hung-up on her suspicions concerning Marina and her injections? No doubt she had decided to take things into her own hooves and further investigate those injections on her own. Thomas began to feel guilty for not listening more to her concerns and, instead, writing it off as fatigue. Well, he had a pretty good idea of where to find her. He’d better get there before she got herself into any trouble.

* * *
Luckily, Tabby had always had an easy time of breaking into buildings. Thanks to her unicorn magic, she could temporarily transform herself into a louse or a dust mite or something equally small and creepy and could easily slip inside a crack in a door or window. The object of her break-in that night was, naturally, Steuben’s clinic. He had said something about obtaining an injection for her to study more closely. She was just taking advantage of his offer– a bit covertly, maybe, but that was no big deal when the fate of Ponyland’s pets was at stake!

Turning back into her true form, Tabby made her way back to the conference room. She stopped a bit to chat with the feisty mouse, who was still there in his cage at the head of the room. “Hello, little guy,” she spoke cheerfully as he lunged at the bars. “Ooh, you’re a feisty one, aren’t you! I bet you weren’t before Marina’s injection. Of course, you were close to death then, but... hey, don’t take it out on me! I’ll see if I can find a way to make you better. Do you happen to know if there are any magic injections stored around here?”

Tabby wasn’t able to get any reply except for some snarls and hisses (she hadn’t even known mice could make those noises!). However, she did locate a satchel with Marina’s name on it in a closet by the door. And inside the satchel was a syringe conveniently marked “Magic Injection”.

“See ya, little guy!” Tabby waved as she trotted out the room toward the lab. In it she found all manners of high-tech testing equipment used by the vet clinic. Looking around for a moment, though, Tabby shivered, and then ran back to get the mouse’s cage. Returning, she set it on an empty counter in the lab. Tabby hated the dark, and having a bloodthirsty mouse as company was better than being all alone in such an atmosphere. So, maybe she had taken a few bites to the hooves. At least she had someone to talk to.

Then Tabby proceeded to do all manner of things to the supplied magic injection in order to find out more about its evil properties. The author will skip any details of these tests, seeing as she has no clue what any of them would be. Anyway, Tabby was happily experimenting away when she heard hoofsteps in the hall. She immediately froze, standing rigid over the counter. And then the door creaked open.

“Tabby.”

The single word hit Tabby like a bullet. She gasped, and her hooves went to her throat.

“Don’t you know this is a stupid thing to be doing?” Thomas emerged from the shadows. “Walking the streets alone at night? Breaking into a building? What if it had been one of the personnel that had found you here and not me?”

“Nobody’s here at night. Besides, I didn’t break in. I just walked in. Sort of,” Tabby defended herself.

“Uh-huh.” Thomas wasn’t convinced.

“I have to do this, don’t you see!” Tabby looked at him desperately. “I’m the only one that can. Something is wrong, but unless I can come up with proof, no one will believe it!”

Thomas was about to rebuke her again for being so unmindful, but paused as he stopped to look at her, really look at her. He took in the dark rings around her eyes, the bloody bites on her hooves, and the fact that she was working alone in a pitch-black building (except for a few small lights in this room) in the dead of night. Tabby was petrified of the dark. Thomas finally realized just how important this was to her and made a decision. “Then let me help you.”

Tabby just shook her head. “I can find what I need to by myself. Besides, if it hadn’t been for the scroll, you’d still be against me.”

“What scroll?”

“Didn’t you see it? The one–”

“No, I didn’t see any scroll. But it wouldn’t have mattered.” He advanced closer and took her hooves in his. “Because I believe in you. And if Dr. Marina is up to something, we’ll find it.”

“You won’t be... very...” Tabby hesitated. “...disappointed if Marina is doing something evil, will you?”

“Disappointed? Of course I will. Everyone involved will be if this miraculous cure turns out to be false.”

“But you seemed very... taken with her.” Tabby faltered. “You don’t like her... better than me, do you?”

“You are very insecure, aren’t you, Tabby? And paranoid to top it all off. Just because I admired her work doesn’t mean I’d fall in love with her, like with you.”

“Really?” Tabby breathed.

“You really are an idiot, you know. Well, what have you done so far?”

“I found one of Marina’s injections and I’m splitting it down into its component parts. I still need to separate the magic element in it, though, because I think that’s what the root cause of the problem is. I suspect it’s dark, evil magic, because good magic wouldn’t have worked contrary to what the originator of the spell had intended– oh, but you didn’t see the scroll, did you? Well, just take my word for it. Oh, and I need to cure that poor little mouse yet, too. Here, hold this.” She thrust a vial at him and skipped across the room to resume her work.

After a long night the two were successful in their mission. “There!” Tabby held up the vial of dark swirling magical energy proudly. “I knew there was evil involved in this.”

“But why would Marina have done it?” Thomas said pensively.

“Some nefarious plan, naturally. What do we do now? Confront her with the evidence? I wonder where she’s staying? Ooooh, and I still need to come up with an antidote for the little mousy!”

“Both of those things can wait until tomorrow... today,” Thomas said firmly. “You’ve done more than enough tonight, and you can bring up your finds at the meeting tom– later. But now you’re going back to the hotel to get some rest before that.”

“Oh.”

* * *
By morning, Tabby did have a guilty conscience. And since she and Thomas had been invited to have breakfast with Steuben and Spindrift on this, their last day in New Pony, Tabby decided to make a clean slate of it before the conference.

“Er... well, I really hate to say this, Steuben, after all the hospitality you and your wife have offered....” Tabby said uncomfortably after being admitted into the house. “It really was a bad way to repay you, and I hope you won’t hold it against Thomas at least... but I felt that it was very important to do what I did...”

“Yes?” Steuben looked perplexed as he led them to a breakfast nook off the kitchen.

“Well... you see, I broke into your lab last night.” Tabby said it in a rush and shut her eyes immediately as if expecting some terrible punishment.

“We both did,” Thomas interjected.

“It was my fault,” Tabby insisted.

“You... what?” Steuben blinked rapidly.

“Well... you had mentioned something about getting an injection for me to investigate further. And I needed to do it. Last night. So...”

“And it couldn’t wait?” Steuben was more perplexed than angry.

“No, it couldn’t. To have delayed would have had formidable consequences.” And Tabby pulled the vial out of her bag and held it up for viewing. “This is the magic element Marina uses in her injections.”

It was black, swirling with dark purple highlights.

“Is that...” Steuben faltered.

“Yes, it is. Dark magic. What we would have started injecting all animals with.”

“Oh, my.”

“Indeed,” Tabby intoned solemnly.

“Hello again, my dears...” Spindrift entered the room effusing good spirits, but quickly noted the serious expressions all around her. “Why, whatever is the matter with all of you!”

“That,” Thomas said, leading her to the table, “is a topic that would be best discussed over breakfast.”

* * *
“It will, of course, take time to do further work on the injections until they are safe for mass production and wide-spread use. And afterwards, of course, we may all have to start looking for new jobs,” Marina introduced the next day’s follow-up meeting and smiled at her audience. “But I think everyone here agrees that it will be worth it–“

”Not really.” Tabby’s voice rang out like a rocket as she stood up, and all eyes were upon her. “Seeing as your injections are powered by dark, evil magic.”

A collective gasp rang through the room at this blasphemous charge. “I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Marina said in well-feigned shock.

“I think you do,” Tabby smiled grimly. “Observe!” She held the vial of dark magic aloft for all to see. “To test my suspicions, I separated the magic bond from the other ingredients. And this is what I found!”

“Well, maybe it is a little dark in nature,” Marina said, glaring at Tabby. “It still doesn’t mean–“

”You mean you admit that you used dark magic?” the mare with glasses from yesterday asked in shocked tones.

Marina crossed her forelegs stubbornly. “But I don’t think it really matters, if it’s the only way to get them to work! The inventor of the spell should have known–“

”The inventor of the spell knew more about what he was doing than you think.” Tabby extracted another item from her bag and unrolled the crumbly old scroll onto the table. “This is his explanation, written in his own hand.” Whispers had broken out at the beginning of this conflict, but everyone sank into silence as Tabby’s commandeering gaze fell on them. Then she read aloud the message she had uncovered just last night. Everyone was very touched by the end.

Tabby set the paper down thoughtfully as she finished. “Hmm, he looks remarkably well for his age. Not a day over sixty!”

Marina had the grace to look a little repentant, but she wasn’t ready to give up. “What I want to know is how you, Tabby, gained access to methods to experiment on my formula like that.”

“Oh, well, you know,” Tabby waved a hoof through the air. “I guess I kinda sorta...”

“We employed the use of Steuben’s lab last night,” Thomas said in a tone challenging anyone to complain.

“Without Steuben’s approval, I’ll bet!” Marina said angrily. “See? She’s not really on the up-and-up, either!”

Steuben turned to Marina with a grim expression. “In light of what she found, I don’t think anyone here will hold it against her,” he said forcefully. “And besides, she was willing to make a very charmingly put apology.”

“I have nothing to apologize for. I didn’t think it was necessary for everyone to know the details,” Marina said, tossing her mane. “Magic is very complicated, you know, and an explanation would have been tedious.”

“Only because you knew we would have disapproved,” Steuben said sternly.

“You withheld pertinent facts from us!” someone across the table exclaimed angrily.

“It isn’t fair!” Marina snapped. “Tabby broke into your lab, but you won’t even give me the benefit of explaining myself! As a matter of fact, she’s blowing it all out of proportion. It’s not nearly as bad as she’s making it out to be. Sure, there’s a chance that the pets will turn evil; but my early research suggests that very few pony injuries would result...”

”It was irresponsible of you, to say the least,” Steuben pressed on impatiently, ignoring Marina’s justification, “to conceal the fact you were making these injections with dark magic. And even planning on using them on pets! It is a grave disappointment to me to have entertained such a.... such a...”

“It’s an outrage,” one of the others spoke-up in disgust. “How can you call yourself a caring pet doctor with practices like these?”

“You’re a disgrace to the field.”

“Thank goodness it was found out in time.”

“I can’t believe I fell for her ploy.”

“We should have realized it was too good to be true.”

“That Holbrook fellow was right. A miracle cure could never replace the value of ponykind’s own achievements.”

Marina stomped her hoof petulantly, eyes blazing, but everyone was too busy now discussing her scandalous behavior to pay any attention to the cause herself. “I don’t know why you’re all being so unreasonable! Can’t you see the benefits? Are you going to write me off just like this and destroy my credibility?” Her voice rose steadily higher, but no one heeded her.

Tabby discreetly walked over to Marina and patted her on the shoulder reassuringly. “It’s all right. Your credibility may be shot out here, but you could come and work for us in Dream Valley. I’d vouch for you.”

Marina eyed her with a mix of disbelief and suspicion. “Are you trying to make fun of me? After what you did?”

“Well, I did ruin your chance to make it big, I’ll admit,” Tabby agreed. “So I figure it’s only fair to give you another chance at our clinic.”

“As the cleaning lady or something yucky, I bet,” Marina muttered.

“No, you can still be a veterinarian. I assume you’re competent in animal care without using dark magic?”

“Of course I am,” Marina retorted hotly. “I do have a degree, you know! I just do magic in my spare time. Because most ponies don’t seem to appreciate it.” She tossed her mane defiantly.

“So do you want to do it?” Tabby prodded.

Marina narrowed her eyes, weighing her options. “What’s this Dream Valley place like, anyway? Besides the strange creatures in the Dark Forest.” That part about what Tabby had told her yesterday had surely gotten her attention, but...

“Oh, I think you’d like it,” Tabby said cheerfully, knowing what Marina was angling for. She purposely saved it for last. “It’s big, but not too big. Lots of places to go. Oh, and lots of cute guys.”

“Cute guys?” Marina’s eyes lit up. “Lots of them?”

“Oh, loads,” Tabby blithely assured her. And even if she was exaggerating a bit, she’d be sure to hunt some up as soon as she was back.

“And available?”

“There are single stallions all over the place,” Tabby went on, waving a hoof through the air. “You wouldn’t believe it. They’ll all be falling over themselves to get a shot at a new mare in town.”

“Hmm,” Marina said thoughtfully. “Okay, I’ll do it!”

“Okay!” said Tabby energetically, taking Marina’s hoof and leading her across the room. Time to show Thomas his new employee!

* * *
“I still don’t fully understand why you offered Marina a job,” Thomas puzzled as they boarded the plane for their flight home that evening. “I thought you didn’t like her.” Marina would be flying out to her new place of employment next week after straightening out some of her affairs.

“But I think I can make something useful and productive out of her,” Tabby said earnestly. “It’ll be fun!”

“Ah, another of your projects.”

“Yes! Hey, can we have a Halloween party at the mansion this year? I want to make everyone dress up in costumes!”

“Are you sure you’ll have the time?”

“I always have lots of time!”

“Oh... whatever you want, then,” Thomas said vaguely. It was no use reasoning with her once she had made up her mind on something.

“Oh, good! I’m going to make a kimono. How about you? And who all shall I invite? Oooh, this is going to be so much fun!”



Author’s note: You know what I have realized? Thomas never gets a really big role in any stories, which doesn’t seem fair. Tabby always takes the spotlight from him so he doesn’t get a chance to do anything. How to resolve this, how to resolve this! Hmm... I’ll have to work on his character in the next story. He MUST be able to do more than keep Tabby in line! (Though granted, that IS a full-time job...)

Oh, and if anyone is wondering, Tabby DID cure the little mousy. She took him with her back to Dream Valley and set him free in the Dark Forest.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Moving On, Looking Back
by Sugarberry (Sugrbery@aol.com)


Coming out of the gooseberry patch with both of her buckets filled to the brim with the dark, smoothly rounded berries, Sassy smiled in contentment. When Blackcap had first told her that they would be spending a week or two at Camomile and Forester’s farm outside of Neighberry, she had braced herself for a dull, uneventful stay. But Camomile’s life was anything but boring, what with a huge vegetable garden to maintain and berries to glean in due time, not to mention the flower beds and the lawn itself that needed constant attention. Sassy had been kept so busy that she had not missed her own home in New Pony for a minute.

Taking a minute to stand under a shady maple tree, Sassy breathed in the fragrance of the fresh country air and let her eyes feast on the luscious greenery accented by the reds, yellows, blues, purples, and nearly every other shade available in the flowers. All of this was backed by a cornflower blue sky that seemed to separate this beautiful valley farm from the rest of the world.

Arriving at the back door of the farmhouse at the same time as Blackcap and Forester, Sassy grinned at the two stallions. Both of them had been putting hay away in the barn, and they were hot, sweaty, and decorated with stiff, sticky bits of hay.

This was a side of Blackcap that Sassy had never seen before coming to the farm. Always in their past, Blackcap had worked hardest at avoiding work, at least any kind that involved muscle and exertion. He would plan the details of the perfect con for weeks, but come up with any excuse to avoid taking out the trash. Now, Blackcap accepted with a certain amount of enjoyment the backbreaking work that Forester set for him; and not once had Blackcap complained; neither had he mentioned any yearning for the city. He had settled into the day-to-day business of farming as if he had been doing it all his life.

No less surprised than Sassy by his response to the rustic life, Blackcap had been bemused to find that he was actually enjoying his time on the farm. When Forester had first approached him about coming to Neighberry to paint the barn, Blackcap had much regretted ever having sold a trusting Forester an inferior paint job. How was he to know that someday, his youngest daughter would be marrying the grandson of the very stallion he had gypped? At the wedding reception when Forester discussed the problem with him, Blackcap had felt well put upon to have been called to account for his past deeds; yet, for the sake of his daughter, he had been anxious to make amends. How long would it take him to paint the barn, anyway? A couple of days at the most was all it would set him back.

But upon arriving at the busy old farm, Blackcap had seen that Forester was hard pressed to keep up the place on his own. Camomile helped, of course, but she was more than swamped with her own gardening during the summer. The barn not only needed painting, but it also needed some repair work, as did several other of the sheds on the place. Fences needed fixing, crops needed harvesting, and weeds needed mowing. The couple of days had turned into a couple of weeks as first one project and then another had been addressed by the stallion in a burst of energy to make things right for Forester and Camomile. The main reason for coming to the farm, the painting of the barn, was still to be accomplished.

Blackcap had to grin each time he thought back to the conversation he and Forester had shared the first evening they had arrived at the farm after Garnet and Wishbone’s wedding. The two stallions had sat on the porch while Camomile was preparing them a repast after their journey; and Blackcap, viewing the barn again after so many years, had been overcome with shame.

“How long did my last paint job last?” he had asked Forester.

Forester had sat back and wrinkled his brow while pondering the question. “I’d say... a good ten years.”

That piece of information had shocked Blackcap, because he knew for a fact– as he was the one who had done it– that the paint was watered down to such a degree that it would not hold up beyond any proper summer rain. How, then, had it lasted for ten years? He had stared long and hard at the aging farmer before blurting, “But that paint... we both know it couldn’t withstand the first thunderstorm that passed through.”

Chuckling, Forester had merely settled in for a walk down memory lane. “I remember the day you arrived with your offer to paint the barn. It was rather late, and you said you’d start first thing in the morning. Camomile was just setting out supper, like now, and you eyed the food like you hadn’t eaten in days. So we invited you to sup with us, and then put you up in the guest room for the night.

“I have to admit, Blackcap, that I had my suspicions about you; I’d heard stories from other farmers who’d gotten swindled by a deal too good to be true. So I slipped out to the barn after you were asleep to check on your paint... and found that it seemed a mite too thin for the quality you’d assured me and Camomile it was.”

Blackcap was not so jaded that he could prevent a blush from creeping up his cheeks as he recalled his blatant lies. At the time, it had seemed the only way to regroup the family’s jangles; it had hurt him to leave Sassy working in that out-of-the-running restaurant for long hours each day when they had hit a bad spell of luck.

Forester continued. “Well, it just so happened that I’d been planning to paint the barn myself... if I ever got the time.” He shook his head, and Blackcap understood the shortage of hours when most of the work had to be accomplished between sunrise and sunset under often less than ideal weather conditions. “I had plenty of the paint on hoof, you see. So I just sort of exchanged your watered-down paint with my good stuff. The next morning, you set to work and completed the job by the second day. And a darn good job of it you did, too.” The stallion winked at Blackcap.

For a moment, Blackcap looked stunned. He had been feeling guilty as sin because he had duped this kindly old farmer, and now he was informed that Forester had been aware of his duplicity from the start. It rankled, but yet he had to admire the farmer. A respectful grin lit Blackcap’s face. “So I was conned in the process of conning?”

“All for a good cause,” Forester smiled back. “You’re labor wasn’t wasted... and neither were my jangles.”

“I like you, Forester. You’re a cagey ol’ cu...” Blackcap cleared his throat. “You’ve got a sly mind.”

Forester had thumped Blackcap on the shoulder and invited him into the house to partake of supper.

* * *
One thing that Sassy had learned upon her arrival at the farm was that Twilight Jewel, Camomile and Forester’s daughter-in-law, was not too happy to have her son’s in-laws inveigling themselves so intimately into the lives of her husband’s parents. Why Twilight Jewel felt this way was a mystery to Sassy. Well, true, she and Blackcap did not have a sterling reputation; but what did ponies expect, that they would run off with Camomile’s quilts and Forester’s prize ewe?

And for another thing, Camomile had let it slip that Twilight Jewel rarely came to the farm to visit under ordinary circumstances; yet since Blackcap and Sassy’s arrival, she had been popping in with increasing frequency so that even Camomile was becoming hard-pressed to put up with the mare’s saccharin visits that were only scouting expeditions to make sure the family silver was still in place.

On the other hoof, Drifter, the only son of Camomile and Forester– and also Twilight Jewel’s husband and Wishbone’s father– had astonishingly gained a role model in Blackcap, finding in the assertive stallion what he himself had always lacked: self-direction. He had allowed Twilight Jewel to control the decisions in their life; and even though he now enjoyed the running of the restaurant, The Right Place, they had opened several years ago, he sometimes felt that his life had gotten out-of-hoof. Blackcap’s confident tackling of any problem provided Drifter with a sense of hope that even he could one day take charge... if Twilight Jewel allowed it, of course. Oh, dear, one step at a time!

But the Sunday afternoons fishing with Blackcap and Forester while the mares stitched on a quilt had been moments out of time for Drifter. He had accepted Blackcap’s offer to accompany him to the lumberyard one day to pick up the supplies he and Forester needed to effect repairs on the animal pens and sheds. He had even soiled his hooves once they had the supplies delivered by removing rotten boards from a shed while Blackcap sawed the replacement lumber to length. He had gotten so caught up in the work that he had not returned to the restaurant on time and had faced a severe set-down from Twilight Jewel about tending to his own affairs rather than cavorting with the likes of Blackcap Lamplight. But the scolding had not depressed Drifter. He had slept better that night than he had in ages. Blackcap’s eternal optimism and devil-may-care attitude were rubbing off on him.

This mingling of diverse personalities added some spice to Camomile’s otherwise sedate life, and she enjoyed watching as Drifter began to reassert his independence, becoming more like the young stallion who had once dared to dream his own dreams; and she noted with some amusement Twilight Jewel’s discomfort with the change in her husband, especially where Sassy was concerned. Drifter had always been respectful and condescending where his wife was concerned; but with Sassy, he enjoyed a playful, outspoken relationship that brought a smile to his face and put a spring in his step. The opposite was true for Twilight Jewel; she was often seen scowling at the light-hearted exchange that Drifter and Sassy engaged in while Blackcap merely grinned and joined in. It made for an interesting couple of weeks on the farm, and Camomile found that she would miss Sassy and Blackcap’s company when their work was finished.

* * *
“Well, that does it,” declared Blackcap, stepping back from the last of the barn trim he had just finished painting. He took off his old baseball cap and rubbed a hoof over his sweating forehead. “What do you think?”

Forester, having completed the morning chores, came up to join Blackcap in inspecting the new coat of red paint and the white trim. “Not too shoddy a job at all,” grinned the older stallion. “Looks mighty fine to me.”

“Glad to hear you say that. Now all I have to do is clean the brushes and get all this stuff put away.” He nodded toward an assortment of paint cans, brushes, ladders, and related equipment.

“I’ll need one of those ladders to hang Camomile’s flowers,” stated Forester, matching his actions to his words. Moving the ladder to a position by the barn door, he next retrieved a hanging basket of white petunias that waited to reclaim their spot on a black wrought-iron hook and prepared to mount the ladder.

“Wait just a minute and I’ll take care of that for you,” Blackcap suggested.

Forester laughed at Blackcap’s concern. “I’ve hung this basket for Camomile every year since we got married, and I hope to do it for many more. I’m not some doddering old fool just yet.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that you were,” grinned Blackcap, turning back to his own tasks after verifying that the ladder was safely situated. He was just drying one of his brushes when he heard Forester ask, “There, how does that look?”

Looking up to take in the placement of the basket, Blackcap’s attention was drawn instead to some motion further beyond the ladder leaning against the barn. Coming around the corner were several large, plump pigs, their legs pumping as if the hound of the Baskerville’s was behind them; and in a manner of speaking, he was. Actually, it was only Rover, Forester’s sheep dog, but Rover was upset to have found the neighbor’s pigs snuffling around his corn crib, and he was determined to rid the farm of their unwanted presence.

Unfortunately, Rover’s pursuit was sending the pigs directly toward the ladder on which Forester was balanced. Blackcap had time only to call out a warning; by the time Forester realized the danger he was in, the pigs were already at the base of the ladder; and their frenzied escape from Rover caused them to careen into the legs of the ladder and send it toppling, throwing Forester to the ground in an undignified heap with one back leg receiving the brunt of the fall.

“Ugh!” he groaned as he lay catching his breath. “My leg hurts something fierce.”

Blackcap was at the stallion’s side even before the dust had settled from the pigs’ cloven hooves. “Forester, don’t move.” He put a foreleg against Forester’s chest, effectively immobilizing him. “That leg looks like it’s broken to me. I’m going to get help.”

Sassy and Camomile, however, had been working in the garden and had heard the ruckus and came running to see what the commotion was all about. Sassy, hearing her husband’s verdict, immediately turned back to call the paramedics while Camomile dropped down to Forester’s side. “What in the world happened?”

“Rover took offense to Granger’s pigs coming over to visit,” Forester said, trying to mask the pain. “I was in their path.” He smiled weakly, but Camomile was not fooled.

“You poor thing!” She crooned and patted his cheek, then noticed the ladder still lying close by the prone figure of her husband. “You were up on that ladder weren’t you?” she asked, all the tender compassion gone from her voice, replaced now with a sharp edge. “Didn’t I tell you this morning to let Blackcap hang that planter?”

“What, you’d wish this broken leg on him?” Forester defended.

“No! What I mean is that Blackcap would have had the good sense not to fall!”

Forester and Blackcap shared a puzzled frown, trying to follow Camomile’s logic, when Sassy came running back from the house. “I’ve called the paramedics; they’ll be here as quickly as they can.” In her hooves were a pillow and a quilted lap pad which she capably used to make Forester more comfortable during his wait. Next, she offered him a drink of water, and only then turned her attention to Camomile and Blackcap, asking for a complete account of what had taken place to put Forester in such a position.

When Blackcap had given a concise and accurate account of the incident, Sassy grinned. “Here you are doing such a sweet thing, and this is the thanks you get for it.” She shook her head over the impaired leg.

“That’s not the way some see it,” Forester muttered, darting a glance at his wife.

Some would have the sense to let a younger stallion do the job,” Camomile shot back.

“Now, now,” Blackcap interfered, feeling sorry for Forester who had enough to contend with at the moment. “No one had any way of knowing that a parcel of pigs was going to come gallivanting through the barnyard; I’d be in the same shape as Forester if I’d been the one on the ladder.”

Suddenly contrite, Camomile turned her energies to making Forester more comfortable, giving Blackcap a chance to talk with Sassy alone. “What’s this going to do to our plans of returning to New Pony tomorrow?”

“My gosh! I hadn’t thought of that. We can’t just walk off and leave Camomile with all the chores to do by herself.”

“My thoughts exactly. Once we have the doctor’s opinion, you wouldn’t be adverse to staying longer?”

“I don’t see that we have a choice.”

* * *
Later, at the hospital, Camomile opted to spend the night in Neighberry to be closer to her husband; and Blackcap assured both Camomile and Forester that he would make sure that all the chores were taken care of at the farm. Fortunately, the medication for the pain that the doctor had prescribed for Forester kept the stallion sedated enough so that he did not have the will to fight his forced incapacity or to bewail Blackcap and Sassy’s further confinement to the farm. Twilight Jewel seemed cool and aloof as if she somehow blamed the accident on Blackcap and Sassy, but Drifter assured the Lamplights that he would be able to take some time off from the restaurant to help on the farm as well.

Twilight Jewel found herself between a rock and a hard place. She could not fathom having Blackcap and Sassy at her in-laws home even for one night without supervision; they could pack off everything if they’d a mind too. On the other hoof, she could not in good conscience bid her husband to accompany them to the farm for the night and play bodyguard, not when Drifter found the violet-eyed mare so fascinating. She found that she would much rather be assured of Drifter’s safety than that of the household possessions, so kept her mouth shut concerning her misgivings about the reliability of Sassy and Blackcap.

Camomile did ask one particular favor of Sassy before she and Blackcap left for the farm, and that was to call Wishbone and Chocolate Chip for her to let them know of their grandfather’s accident. She knew that Sassy would give a more succinct report to the two than Twilight Jewel, who had of love of theatrics.

Sassy promised that she would notify both young ponies of the day’s events post haste.

* * *
“I was hoping you’d be more circumspect now that you’re married,” Sassy griped as she finished listening to Garnet’s story of her and Wishbone’s honeymoon.

“Mother! I didn’t ask to be spirited away by Tinder and Honeydew,” Garnet’s voice came back. “And you’re sure that Grandpa will be okay?”

“I’d say the biggest problem facing us is to keep him quiet long enough to heal that leg of his,” Sassy confided. “He won’t take too kindly to sitting back and watching your dad and Drifter taking care of the place.”

“We’ll come visit this weekend,” Garnet promised. “That’ll help keep him diverted.”

“I’m perfectly sure that your account of kidnaping and pirate ships will set his mind at ease, dear,” Sassy drawled. “You might, however, want to hold back the part about the cannonball.”

Garnet chuckled. “Yes, Mother.”

* * *
Sassy caught Chocolate Chip at home after a long, hard day at the office. “... so your grandfather will be laid-up for awhile, but he’ll do fine. The doctor said it was a clean break, and he doesn’t foresee any problems from it.”

“I’m so grateful that you and Blackcap are there to tend to things,” Chocolate Chip assured the mare. “Mom and Dad would have a hard time managing the restaurant and the farm. But are you sure this won’t be too big an inconvenience for you? You’ve been away from your home in New Pony for weeks now.”

“Well, there is one thing you could do for me, Chocolate Chip.”

“Anything.”

“I’ve already called a neighbor of mine to tell her of our delay, and she’ll continue to pick up the mail and look out for things. But I could use some stuff out of the apartment, and Tilly wouldn’t be able to get to the post office to mail a package; she doesn’t get around so well any more.”

“What do you need? I could go over there yet tonight and have the items mailed out tomorrow.”

Sassy proceeded to list the things she wanted, and Chocolate Chip carefully jotted them down along with the address of the apartment.

“Tilly is right next door to us, and she has the key to our place. I’ll call her and let her know to expect you. And thanks, Chocolate Chip, for doing this.”

“No problem. Look for your package in a couple of days.”

* * *
Hanging up the phone, Chocolate Chip was ready to dash out the door when she realized that she had never been in the part of New Pony in which Blackcap and Sassy’s apartment was located; she retraced her steps to the phone and dialed Xavier’s number.

“Xavier, I have to run an errand over on East Graham Street. I was wondering if you’d accompany me.”

“Graham Street isn’t in the best part of town, Chocolate Chip. Are you sure you have the right address?”

“Yes. I wrote it down exactly as it was given to me”

“What is it, a pawn shop?” Xavier asked, his voice harsh.

“No, it’s Garnet’s parents’ apartment.”

“Oh.”

“I promised Sassy I’d send some of her things to her at Grandpa’s farm; Grandpa fell today and broke his leg. Blackcap and Sassy are going to help run the farm until he’s back on his hooves.”

“They’ve been there ever since the wedding?”

“Obviously so. I guess there was a lot of repair work that needed to be done. But will you come with me tonight, or do I go alone?”

“There’s no way I’m letting you go alone, Chocolate Chip. I’ll be over in a couple of minutes.”

The receiver went dead before Chocolate Chip could even say, “Thank you.”

* * *
“I missed you walking home from work,” Xavier admitted once he and Chocolate Chip were on there way. “Another busy day?”

Chocolate Chip was quiet for a moment. “May I tell you something in confidence, Xavier?”

“Of course. I’m not a scandalmonger.”

Another pause ensued. “Did you know that Fabia is the niece of the company’s president?”

“I wasn’t aware of it. Is there some significance to that relationship?” Xavier hedged.

“Fabia’s my supervisor, you know; but the longer I work under her, the more I question her capability to handle the job she’s been given.”

“You’re saying she’s incompetent?”

“I’m saying that she seldom does any work. She relies on me and Tarn to compile all the information and make the assessments, then she takes the credit for it.”

“I’m sure that happens all the time.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“Maybe not, but it’s not going to change, either.”

“It doesn’t seem to be an efficient way to run a company, to let an unqualified pony hold a position of authority when that pony doesn’t have a hint as to what is going on,” Chocolate Chip complained.

“What in particular has you so fired up?”

“Well, I’ve been hearing bits and pieces around the office about Fabia’s ability to bring off any presentation as if it’s her own, so I started asking some discreet questions. I seems that she’s an expert at her job only when she can submit someone else’s efforts; she can put on a good show, but she hasn’t a clue as to where the facts and figures came from.”

“So how does she continue to go on as she does?”

“Because no one has the courage to question the niece of the president.”

Xavier cast a sideways glance at the mare. “And how about you?”

“I like my job.” Chocolate Chip laughed nervously. “I just learned that the pony whom I replaced tried to alert her superiors to the fact that Fabia was simply taking credit for other, more capable, ponies’ work; she was let go when Fabia stepped in to cast doubts on her veracity. No one questioned Fabia, of course.”

“Sounds like you have a dilemma.”

“Tell me about it. I can continue to work hard and have Fabia get all the credit, or I can raise a ruckus and end up unemployed.”

“Well, at least you’re getting paid by staying on.”

“Yeah. Some days it doesn’t seem worth it, though.”

The streets were dingier and less orderly as Chocolate Chip and Xavier neared the address Sassy had given, and it was with some relief that they finally reached the correct apartment number and located Tilly. The mare had hobbled to the door to answer their tentative knock, and looked with interest at the pair standing before her.

“Sassy said you’d be comin’,” she grinned, showing several empty spaces in her row of yellowed teeth.

“You have the key?” Xavier asked, holding on to Chocolate Chip’s foreleg as if expecting to have to pull her out of harm’s way at any moment.

“Yeah, I got the key.” She held it up, but pulled it back when Xavier reached for it. “Why don’t ya come in and have a cup of coffee first?”

“We’re really in a hurry,” faltered Chocolate Chip, noting the none-too-clean interior of Tilly’s rooms.

“Tsk, tsk. You younger folk are always in such a hurry-scurry way. It won’t hurt ya to set down a spell.” She fumbled with a stack of newspapers on the coffee-stained sofa and tossed some unfolded scarves and ribbons on the floor. “Make yourselves comfortable,” she then said, going off with her uneven gait toward a small kitchen.

Casting an apologetic glance at Xavier, Chocolate Chip moved into the room, staring at the piles of books, magazines, dirty dishes, and knickknacks on every available surface in the room. She ran her hoof over the sofa cushions, brushing away some crumbs and cat hairs, before sitting down primly on the edge. Xavier remained standing.

As Tilly prepared the instant coffee, she kept up a running dialogue of neighborhood happenings as if Chocolate Chip and Xavier were regular visitors. “Fleeter lost his job... again. He says that it wasn’t his fault, but he says that all the time. Course, he isn’t as young as he used to be.” Tilly chuckled. “None of us are. Lizzie thinks she is, though. She was here today peddling cosmetics, painted up like a circus clown, if ya ask me.”

Listening to the gossip, Chocolate Chip became aware of movement across the room and could not help but admire a beautiful cat that came out of another tiny room with the door partially closed. The cat was grey, long-haired, and had a proud, bushy tail that was waving now with slow, deliberate movements. Chocolate Chip was so caught up in the fluid motion of that tail that she did not notice what the cat was carrying until it stopped in front of her and deposited a wet and frazzled clump of fur at her hooves. Staring at the bedraggled object, Chocolate Chip only slowly realized what it was.

“A mouse!” she exclaimed, jumping to her hooves and darting to stand behind Xavier.

“What a good kitty!” cooed Tilly, coming with a coffee mug in each forehoof. Her limping gait caused the hot, brown liquid to slosh over the sides of the mug, of which Tilly seemed entirely unaware. Handing a mug to each of the ponies, she then proceeded to pick up the mouse– it had not moved a muscle– and take it to an open window to toss outside. That done, she returned to the kitchen counter to retrieve her own mug and joined Chocolate Chip on the couch where the young mare had again perched. Tilly motioned for Xavier to take the chair, but the cat beat him to it.

“How do you come to know Sassy?” Tilly asked of Chocolate Chip.

“Her daughter married my brother.”

“And you, young fella, you’re a courtin’ this one, I suppose?”

“No. But we’re good friends,” Xavier responded in a choked voice, finding the coffee to be very strong and very, very bitter. The cat hair floating on top had not helped, either. He made himself comfortable by leaning against a wall and tried to catch Chocolate Chip’s eye in an effort to get them out of this loathsome apartment as soon as possible. That proved to be a more difficult task than he had at first anticipated, as Chocolate Chip had now seemed to accept Tilly as a bosom bow.

The two mares sat and visited like old friends, sharing tidbits of information about family history and social problems and current fashions, while Xavier bided his time watching the cat clean, counting how many more cat hairs loosened by the cat’s vigorous licking joined those already in his mug. He only became fully conscious again when he heard Tilly say, “Well, I’ve sure enjoyed your visit, Chocolate Chip. It can get kinda lonely around here with Sassy gone.” The mare abdicated the key to Chocolate Chip’s hoof.

“I guess it is getting rather late,” Chocolate Chip said, looking guiltily at Xavier. She got to her hooves. “We’ll bring this back as soon as we’ve rounded up Sassy’s things.”

“No hurry,” Tilly said, remaining on the couch. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“You didn’t have to act the saint,” grumbled Xavier as he and Chocolate Chip entered the apartment next door.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” queried Chocolate Chip, surveying Sassy and Blackcap’s apartment with approval. Even though the neighborhood was not the best, the apartment’s interior was clean and well-organized. The furniture was of high quality, the pictures on the wall were classy and attractively grouped, and a plush carpet softened the entire setting. Sassy’s vibrant personality enlivened the space even in her absence.

“I’m just saying you didn’t have to respond to Tilly like some beloved aunt; all we needed from her is the key.”

“She’s lonely, Xavier, and she seldom gets out of that apartment of hers. She enjoyed our visit.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

Chocolate Chip rolled her eyes. “I’ll hurry, then, and get what I need.” She busied herself hunting up the items Sassy had requested, having no trouble locating them in the orderly rooms. When she had everything safely tucked away in her backpack, Chocolate Chip took one final look around to ensure that things were as they should be before grinning at Xavier. “Let’s go, then.”

Returning the key to Tilly, Chocolate Chip gave a hug to the infirm mare. “I was thinking, Tilly. How about I bring something from the deli over on Thursday evening, and you and I can have another good visit?”

The mare’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm, the happy smile on her face taking ten years off her age. “I’d like that!”

“Good. I’ll see you then.” With a final goodbye, Chocolate Chip preceded Xavier out of Tilly’s place, allowing the stallion to say his own brief farewell to the mare. Closing the door behind him, Xavier huffed.

“Why’d you go and promise her you’d come again?” he asked Chocolate Chip angrily.

“Because she’s a sweet old mare, and I think she’s pining for something out of the routine to happen in her life.”

Sweet? I beg to differ, Chocolate Chip. She’s a... a... slovenly housekeeper at best and a source of food poisoning at worst. You can’t be serious about going back there!”

“Oh, but I am. Tilly is in need of a friend, and it might as well be me. It’s because of Grandpa that Sassy isn’t here to look out for her, after all.” Chocolate Chip glanced at Xavier. “You needn’t put yourself out by coming with me next time, although I do appreciate your escort. I know my way now, however, and will be perfectly comfortable coming alone, even though it is getting darker earlier every evening.”

Taking a quick look around him, Xavier shuddered. There was no way he was going to let Chocolate Chip come into a neighborhood like this without his protection, even if it meant another uncomfortable evening in Tilly’s company. “Thursday, you say? I’ll pencil it in on my calendar.”

Chocolate Chip smugly smiled.

* * *
Meanwhile, back at the farm, Sassy and Camomile were hard pressed to keep Forester down. “Blackcap and Drifter are taking care of everything,” his wife admonished him, pushing him back against the cushions of the sofa where he was recuperating.

“I’m supposed to be comforted by that?” barked Forester, making another unsuccessful attempt to raise himself. “A restauranteur and a blackguard watching over my sheep?”

Camomile and Sassy exchanged an amused glance. “Drifter did grow up here, and you couldn’t praise Blackcap enough when he was helping you,” Camomile noted.

Helping is one thing; taking charge is a different matter,” grumbled Forester.

“You gave them plenty of instructions,” added Sassy, smirking over the explicit list of duties that Forester had given the two stallions, treating them as if they were inept school boys. Blackcap had barely controlled his temper while Drifter had only shared an amused grin with Sassy. Now, as she cleaned the latest batch of gooseberries that she had picked, her mind was putting together an idea.

“Camomile,” Sassy broached the subject, “were you serious about leaving the rest of the berries go?”

“Yes. We have more than enough in the freezer to see us through to next year; I’ve never seen so many gooseberries in my life.”

“Would you mind, then, if I were to pick them for some use of my own?”

“What would you do with them, Sassy?”

“They’re too good to go to waste; I was thinking that with a little experimentation, I could develop a pastry that might go over well at The Right Place, sort of a seasonal draw.”

“Twilight Jewel’s never been fond of gooseberries,” warned Camomile.
“But Drifter is,” observed Sassy, remembering the complimentary things he had to say about the pies she and Camomile had prepared only yesterday. “And I think Twilight Jewel would be, too, if we could put a more elegant spin on them.”

“What do you have in mind?”

Sassy grinned. “You’ll see my first effort for dessert tonight.”

* * *
“Well, what does everyone think?” queried Sassy, eying the ponies around the supper table with some trepidation. She had put a lot of planning into her presentation of this new concept for the lowly gooseberry and thought that it had turned out quite delectable; but the faces around her gave no clue as to what any of the others were experiencing from their first bite until Blackcap grimaced and said, “Try again.”

“It’s not that bad,” defended Drifter, taking a second bite. “Maybe it just needs a sauce to top it off.”

“I expected more oomph out of it,” stated Camomile. “Just add more gooseberries next time.”

Forester, finding that eating was the highlight of his confined day, flashed Sassy a bright smile. “It’s great, Sassy. Can’t imagine why the others don’t just say so.” He cleaned up the last crumbs from his plate in satisfaction.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do tomorrow,” sighed Sassy.

* * *
Suppertime the following day ended with the second attempt at Sassy’s perfect gooseberry dessert. She had been isolated in the kitchen for the majority of the day, experimenting with different ideas and trying them out with no one but herself to judge the results. Tasting each attempt with an unprejudiced mind, she had narrowed down her options until she was satisfied that her concoction would now meet with everyone’s approval. As she removed the latest batch from the oven, she noted with satisfaction that they were baked to a delicate golden color that was pleasing to the eye; the aroma was heavenly; and the filling, after a quick taste that burned her tongue, was luscious. Sassy set the pastries on a wire rack to cool while she set out to prepare a topping.

“How’s it going?” asked Camomile, coming into the kitchen and sniffing the air. “Forester says if they taste only half as good as they smell, you’ve got yourself a winner.”

“Forester would say that about dog food, as bored as he is,” laughed Sassy. “But I’ve got to agree, they’ve turned out rather well, I think.”

A glance at the clock on the wall set Camomile scurrying. “It’s that late already? If we want more than dessert for supper, I’d better get cookin’!”

* * *
Sassy’s innovation turned out so well that Drifter invited her to come into Neighberry the following evening to serve the confection to Twilight Jewel and Lollipop to get their opinion; if it mirrored the results of the first taste-test, the new dessert item would be included as a special menu item on the weekend.

As a result, Sassy found herself in Twilight Jewel’s kitchen the next afternoon mixing up her pastries when Lollipop arrived home from her classes at the vocational school. Lollipop, just out of high school, was not unaware of her mother’s dislike for Sassy, and she grinned to find the mare making free with her mother’s domain.

“Does Mom know you’re here?” queried the filly curiously as she settled down at the counter with a glass of milk and a cookie to watch Sassy at work.

“Yes, she knows; but I must admit I’m here because of your father’s invitation, not your mother’s.” She cast a searching glance at Lollipop. “I hope this idea of mine hasn’t caused any trouble in the family,” she said.

Lollipop dismissed that idea with a wave of her hoof and another grin. “It just livened things up a bit,” she admitted. She watched as Sassy combined ingredients in a bowl and asked, “Where did you come up with this recipe?”

“I remember my own mother making a treat for special occasions, but she never wrote the recipe down. I’ve often thought of it, but never felt motivated to make it until I tasted your grandmother’s gooseberries. My mom called them tassies, and I think she made them with cranberries; but I’ve come close to duplicating them even if I’m not using the same ingredients.”

“Your son must have inherited his cooking ability from you,” observed Lollipop, remembering the forbidding stallion at Wishbone’s wedding. “I hope to make a name for myself in the restaurant business myself.”

“And I don’t doubt that you will,” smiled Sassy. “Your parents have done a great job with The Right Place, and your dad is quick to admit that you’re a big help there.”

Lollipop looked pleased. “I love working there, and I plan to learn everything I can so that I can bring in new ideas. Or, maybe...” The filly suddenly lowered her eyes and blushed.

“Or, maybe you can what?” prodded Sassy.

“Lately, I’ve been thinking it might be fun to go to New Pony when I finish my schooling.”

“Ahhh...” Sassy remembered that Lollipop had spent a great deal of time at the wedding reception with Chocolate Chip’s friend from New Pony, but she skirted around the issue. “You would have your big sister’s help and guidance.”

“Wha... oh, yeah. Chocolate Chip could show me around the big city, I suppose.” The glow in Lollipop’s eyes hinted at another diversion.

“Speaking of your sister, she visited my apartment to round up some things I found I couldn’t get along without any longer; she enclosed a note that said Xavier had accompanied her there.”

Lollipop’s eyes simply sparkled. “Xavier? Did she say anything else?”

“About the stallion? No, but she did say that she’d enjoyed visiting with my neighbor, Tilly, who can be quite a hoof-full. Your sister is a very nice pony. Do she and Xavier have... plans for a future together?” Sassy stared at Lollipop innocently.

“Chocolate Chip and Xavier?” The filly laughed. “No, no. Nothing like that. They’re just good friends, that’s all.” Suddenly, Lollipop sobered. “Or, at least, I think that’s all it is. Wigwam’s hopes will be dashed if she falls in love with... someone else. She wouldn’t, would she?” Lollipop asked anxiously.

Sorry now that she had baited the girl, Sassy relented. “Oh, not Xavier by any means; I should think that he had his eyes on you more than your sister.”

That piece of information transformed Lollipop back into her cheerful self. “Can I help you with something, Sassy?” she asked, finishing off her milk and jumping down from the counter stool.

“You could chop some nuts,” suggested Sassy. “We need them for the pastry and the filling.”

“I’m on it.”

* * *
“I’ve never liked gooseberries,” sniffed Twilight Jewel after taking a bite of the tassie. Sassy ignored the remark, having expected just such a reaction, turning her attention to Lollipop instead.

“Well?”

The filly had taken a bite, then a second, then a third. Now her eyes closed in sheer delight. “It’s great, Sassy! The pastry’s tender, the filling is ambrosial, and the topping is luscious.” Her eyes popped open. “I can’t wait to start scribing the menu attachments for this special! We’ll call it Sassy’s Tassies, right Dad?” She turned to her father, completely ignoring her mom.

Sassy was shaking her head in the negative, but Drifter wholeheartedly agreed with his daughter. “Perfect, Lolli. Ponies will want to try them just for the name.”

“That’s not what I...” began Sassy, but Twilight Jewel interrupted her.

Pushing back her chair, Twilight Jewel got to her hooves. “I’ve got a headache,” she complained. “I’m sure the three of you can manage the dishes by yourselves.” Giving each of the three a withering glance, she swept from the room.

Drifter and Lollipop did not seem to notice, Drifter busy finishing off the abandoned dessert at Twilight Jewel’s place and Lollipop scrounging up paper and pencil to do a preliminary design for the menu. Sassy sighed and began clearing the table. She had known Twilight Jewel would not be pleased, but Sassy had hoped that she would at least graciously accept the fact that her husband and daughter found the dessert a delight and concede that it would fare well at the restaurant. It made Sassy uncomfortable to think that she was usurping Twilight Jewel’s accustomed place of dominance with her family. “Maybe you should just call it Gooseberry Delight,” she suggested.

Drifter, however, obviously thought otherwise as he finished eating and carried a load of dirty dishes to the sink. “Sassy, the dessert is as refreshing as you yourself. Your name has to be attached to it.” He thought a moment, then grinned. “Of course, Sassy’s Delight wouldn’t be half bad, either.”

“Nope,” Lollipop overruled. “I’ve already got a design worked out.” She held up her artwork, an old-fashioned spidery script with an abundance of curlicues advertising, A Taste to Delight: Sassy’s Tassies. It was accompanied by a description of the dessert being offered and a price that caused Sassy to gasp.

“You can’t sell it for that much!”

“Why not?” grinned Drifter. “Plain old apple pie costs a jangle. Your tassies are a far cry better than apple pie.”

“He’s right, Sassy. Ponies will be willing to pay to get a taste; it’ll be the talk of the town.”

“You’re the experts,” acknowledged Sassy, suddenly feeling that this project had somehow gotten out-of-hoof. She glanced to the doorway through which Twilight Jewel had disappeared. “I just hope Twilight Jewel agrees with all these decisions.”

* * *
By the time Drifter had accompanied Sassy back to the farm, Sassy was more sure than ever that she had inadvertently driven a wedge between Drifter and Twilight Jewel with her interest in supplying The Right Place with a signature dessert. Drifter had played down her attempt to address the situation, saying that he and Lollipop were perfectly capable of making some of the restaurant’s decisions on their own. “Twilight Jewel will just have to defer to our preferences now,” Drifter had told her, then added, “just as I’ve had to do any number of times down through the years.”

While Drifter took himself off to the barn to help Blackcap with the evening chores, Sassy found Camomile was watering flowers; but she turned down Sassy’s offer to help, urging the mare to go in the house to visit with Forester who was feeling more sorry for himself each passing day.

Finding Forester staring out the window through which he could watch his son and Blackcap feeding the sheep, Sassy settled a gentle hoof on his shoulder. “You’ll be back out there soon enough, and then you’ll wish you’d taken better advantage of your leisure.”

“I’m bored, Sassy... bored stiff. I wasn’t made to sit around without doing something!”

“You have books and magazines and crossword puzzles...”

“I need to do something useful,” muttered Forester.

“How about I go pick some more gooseberries, and you can pick the stems off for me?” suggested Sassy.

“Well, that’s better than nothin’,” grumped the stallion. Then, casting a worried look at Sassy, he utterly surprised her by saying, “I couldn’t help but notice how chummy you and Drifter are becoming; I didn’t plan on nothing like that when I invited you and Blackcap here.”

“Forester!” she said, dismayed. “You think Drifter and I...”

“I don’t think nothing of the sort,” Forester admitted. “It just seems kind of funny the way Drifter can’t seem to get enough of farm life now all of a sudden with you here.”

“Camomile says the same for Twilight Jewel,” pointed out Sassy.

“That’s a fact. Neither of them is acting like their usual selves.”

“Maybe they’re just adjusting to the fact that their children are adults now,” mused Sassy. “An empty nest syndrome of sorts.”

“Your kids are all gone from home; did you go through that?”

Sassy thought for a moment before answering. “Each of our children were raised to be independent from an early age, Forester. They prided themselves on their self-sufficiency. It wasn’t a big deal when they left home.”

“Independence,” muttered Forester. “That’s what it is about Drifter. He seems to have more spirit, more confidence.”

“That’s not a bad thing,” Sassy noted.

“No,” agreed Forester. “But Twilight Jewel might not like the change.”

* * *
Getting the farm chores done early on Friday night, Blackcap and Sassy went into Neighberry for a night on the town, which meant a walk down Main Street and a leisurely dinner at The Right Place. Drifter had promised them the best table in the house, but first he showed Sassy to the kitchen so that she could verify that the tassies were being made to meet her expectations. Finding everything to be in order, Sassy joined Blackcap who was being entertained by Lollipop who made sure that their every wish was met quickly and efficiently. Twilight Jewel, as hostess, had given them a weak smile when they entered, but had deliberately shunned them ever since.

Sassy enjoyed the meal they were served, but she utterly treasured watching ponies’ responses to the tassies. No one was disappointed in the new menu item; Sassy discreetly observed many of the guests take their first bite and grinned to see the blissful response. She only became discomposed when she began noticing that those customers with whom Lollipop spoke after they had experienced the tassie were sending curious glances in Sassy’s direction; and one couple actually stopped at Sassy and Blackcap’s table to compliment Sassy on her expertise in creating such a pleasing dessert. Blackcap preened and puffed out his chest, enjoying Sassy’s recognition with pride.

Twilight Jewel, however, was far from satisfied with the evening. If she heard one more pony praise Sassy’s Tassies, she was going to scream. Fortunately for the mare, she found a welcome distraction when she turned toward the door to greet the latest customers only to find herself facing Garnet and Wishbone.

“Oh! We didn’t expect you until morning!” she enthused, hugging first her daughter-in-law, then her son. “What a wonderful surprise!”

“Wishbone got off work early; and when Wigwam found out that all that was holding us back from leaving for Neighberry today was my shift at the casino, he sent me home,” Garnet informed Twilight Jewel. “How is Grandpa doing?”

“He’s finding that he doesn’t make a good couch potato,” Twilight Jewel smiled. “Your visit will surely brighten his weekend.”

“The place is busy tonight, Mom,” Wishbone noted. He had gotten in his fair share of work at The Right Place before he had left Neighberry for school in Dream Valley.

“Friday nights are always busier,” Twilight Jewel stated, hoping she could ward off conversation on Sassy’s part in the evening’s success for a little longer, at least.

That was not to happen, however, as Lollipop spotted her brother and sister-in-law. “Garnet! Wishbone! You’re here!” She hugged and kissed the two ponies, then pulled them with her to where Sassy and Blackcap sat. “Look who’s here!”

What ensued was a boisterous reunion as the newlyweds were embraced by Sassy and teased by Blackcap who was joined by Drifter in fatherly pride for the two young ponies who were obviously very much content with their new status in life. The honeymoon fiasco with Tinder and Honeydew was elaborated on while Blackcap’s tales of farm life were laughed at, Forester’s accident was properly lamented, Sassy’s culinary success was celebrated, and Wishbone and Garnet were properly fed. The evening flew by and slowly the ponies dispersed, Sassy and Blackcap returning to the farm while Lollipop accompanied Garnet and Wishbone back to the white two-story house in which the three siblings, Wishbone, Lollipop, and Chocolate Chip, had grown up, to get a good night’s sleep before traveling on to visit Camomile and Forester.

Twilight Jewel and Drifter opted to stay at the restaurant to assist their capable help with closing after a rather hectic night of business. The restaurant seemed dreary and inhospitable with the absence of the laughing voices of Sassy, Garnet, and Lollipop and the bantering exchange of the stallions. Drifter was moody and Twilight Jewel was downright melancholy.

When everything was in place and the doors had been locked, the two ponies wordlessly headed for home, Drifter lost in thoughts of the festive evening just past and Twilight Jewel nursing a grudge against Sassy who could draw anyone into her spirited sphere of influence; Twilight Jewel’s only source of comfort was that Sassy had years of experience in gulling unsuspecting pigeons, so it stood to reason that she would be an master in the field. What irked Twilight Jewel the most was that Drifter, normally so malleable, seemed to feed off the energies of both Sassy and Blackcap, turning him into a stranger.

Unable to contain her annoyance over the last hours any longer, Twilight Jewel snapped, “The party atmosphere of the restaurant tonight will probably scare off the majority of our regular customers.”

“It was a highly enjoyable evening. I think everyone who ate at The Right Place tonight went home in better humor than when they arrived.” He chuckled. “Blackcap and Sassy sure can enliven a gathering, can’t they?”

“Just like clowns at a circus,” Twilight Jewel muttered. “Some ponies love them, some despise them.”

Drifter shot a glance at his wife, acutely aware of the distance that had grown between them of late, an unfortunate happening caused by... what? Shattered dreams? Boredom? A feeling that maybe, somehow, they had missed something important in their lives?

Where had the years gone? It was only yesterday– wasn’t it?– when he and Twilight Jewel had been as full of life and love as Garnet and Wishbone were now. Even Sassy and Blackcap had retained that vitality. Where had he and Twilight Jewel gone wrong?

As a colt, Drifter had adored Twilight Jewel from a distance, positive that he would never have a chance to win her heart yet hoping that one day she would condescend to notice his existence. And to his immense satisfaction, that day had come after high school graduation when the field was cleared of a number of contenders for Twilight Jewel’s hoof as classmates left Neighberry for colleges and careers elsewhere. The mare had taken a job in the local hardware store that her parents owned, and she smiled upon Drifter when he came to town to make purchases for the farm.

Drifter would never forget the first time he asked Twilight Jewel to go out with him and she had said yes. They had gone to a movie, then the ice cream shop. She had confided to him that she had wanted to go on to school in Hayton, but her folks had scotched that idea by telling her that they expected her to work to help them recoup a financial setback they had incurred; they had made her feel guilty and partially responsible simply because she was the oldest of her siblings. She had to sacrifice her dreams until her family’s finances were secured.

Having loved her for so long, Drifter felt Twilight Jewel’s disappointment keenly, yet he could only be grateful for the circumstance that kept the mare in Neighberry where he had a chance to woo and win her. He set out to do just that, bringing her flowers from his mother’s garden, escorting her to the weekly dances at the town hall, taking long walks along the river. Always, he listened to Twilight Jewel outline her ambitions and offered the support he could, yet he never fully entered into her almost driven desire to aim higher than what was readily available on a local scale. For himself, he was perfectly content to continue farming with his parents.

Not so Twilight Jewel. As she realized that her aspirations were doomed as long as she remained under her parents’ control, she saw the necessity of revising her plans. Her womanly instincts told her that Drifter would do anything for her, so she began to subtly hint that they could share a life together, but not on the farm. Drifter dug in his heels, however, when she urged him to find a position at one of the factories in Hayton; she had to be content to win his agreement to a job at the local cart manufacturer. Once established there, Drifter was able to support a family; and Twilight Jewel consented to become his wife. Even then he knew that her acceptance of marriage had just as much to do with getting away from her parents as for a passionate love of him, but he was willing to take the chance, convinced that his love was big enough for the both of them.

As so often happens when one is making plans, life happens. Twilight Jewel found satisfying work as a secretary after leaving the hardware store and began to save money toward an education for herself, her hopes of getting to Hayton never deserting her. Just over a year after their marriage, however, a little filly was born to her and Drifter, a foal that Twilight Jewel had looked forward to as an extension of her own aspirations; she would make sure that her child had the opportunities that she had missed. But she was disappointed.

Always a beauty, Twilight Jewel had expected her firstborn daughter to be a replica of herself– deep purple coloring with a fall of pleasing midnight blue hair. The reality of the little brown filly born to her was like another door closing off any glimmer of hope, and Twilight Jewel transferred all of her frustrations against the innocent little girl who had done nothing wrong to deserve her fate. Here Drifter was equally at fault, and he was not proud of himself; for he had closed his eyes to his responsibilities toward his daughter, allowing his wife to berate and intimidate the child at every turn, denying her the parental love that was so necessary. Drifter could only be grateful that Chocolate Chip had been strong enough to survive the misery of those years and had found the support of new friends in Dream Valley who had allowed her to blossom into the successful young mare who could take on New Pony with confidence.

Drifter stopped in his tracks, struck by his wife’s remark about clowns. He clasped her foreleg, forcing her to stop as well. “T.J.” he said, his reminiscing causing him to revert to his pet name for her, “we used to laugh and enjoy ourselves over all sorts of nonsense.”

“Did we? I don’t remember.”

“Don’t say that! We were as carefree and fun-loving as Sassy and Blackcap once upon a time.”

Twilight Jewel’s eyes flashed in the light from the street lamp. There was no laughter in her voice as she responded, “You find Sassy appealing, don’t you?”

“She’s great fun to be around; even you can see that. She and Blackcap have a great sense of humor for all they’ve been through in life. They haven’t lost that zest for living.”

“They had nothing to lose!” Twilight Jewel snapped. “They’ve gone through life leeching off others, never doing an honest day’s work, while we’ve worked and scraped to make something of ourselves and are still here in Neighberry right where we started.”

“We’ve got our own business...”

“In the boondocks! We serve the same boring ponies day in and day out, hear the same gossip over and over again, know everybody’s aches and pains, and to what purpose? To do the same thing tomorrow!”

Staring at his wife, Drifter choked, “You’re jealous of Blackcap and Sassy’s wandering existence? That’s what you want, to follow every pipe-dream that comes along?”

“No! That’s not what I want! I want to be somebody! I want to be successful– not in Neighberry, but somewhere like Hayton where it means something! I want recognition for my talents. I want to be acknowledged as someone worthwhile!” Twilight Jewel covered her face with her hooves, completely undone.

Drifter pulled the now weeping mare into his forelegs. “Have I been so remiss in loving you?” he whispered in her ear while gently stroking her mane.

Unable to answer, the mare shook her head, but whether in the negative or the positive was impossible for Drifter to tell. “T.J., please look at me.”

Lifting her head slowly, Twilight Jewel rubbed the tears from her cheeks and raised shimmery eyes to meet her husband’s. “I... I must look a mess,” she gulped, meeting his eyes only for a second before ducking her head again.

But Drifter forestalled the action, framing her face in his hooves. Tenderly, he wiped the last trace of tears away. “You’re as beautiful as always,” he said, searching her eyes for some sign that she still cared as much for him as he did for her. Her angry acknowledgment of just how miserable she found her life with him had cut him deeply. Had he truly failed her that badly?

A shudder went through the mare’s body. “I don’t feel very beautiful,” she admitted. “Lately, I feel... I feel like everything’s closing in around me, and I don’t have anyplace to run. Part of it’s guilt catching up to me because I let Chocolate Chip down so, and part of it’s because... because I feel so completely expendable as if no one would miss me if I disappeared...” Drifter tried to counter that charge, but Twilight Jewel silenced him with her hoof placed over his lips. “And you were right... I am jealous of Sassy because she can make your face light-up like only I could once do.”

“I’ve loved no other mare but you since sometime around seventh grade,” Drifter smiled. “Maybe I should have reminded you of that more often. But, if you’re so unhappy, we should talk about making some other changes, too.”

Twilight Jewel gasped. “Drifter, I don’t want to leave you! I love you too much for that!”

“No one’s leaving anyone.” Drifter kissed his wife gently, gratified to hear her admission of loving him. “What I meant was that if you’d be happier in Hayton or any other place of your choosing, what’s to stop us from moving there? The kids are grown now; Lollipop can just as well rent an apartment as live at home. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d jump at the chance to get away from Neighberry herself.”

“You would do that for me?”

“I put my hoof down on our going to Hayton twenty-three years ago; maybe that was a mistake. You can decide where we spend the next twenty-three years... and more.”

“It would be like starting over again, just the two of us.”

“I like the sound of that,” Drifter beamed. “Perhaps we should be getting home.”

The pair walked in silent but companionable harmony until they reached their lighted front porch where Twilight Jewel looked at her husband and asked, “The kids won’t be able to tell that I was crying, will they?”

Regarding those radiant eyes turned up to his, Drifter responded, “Hopefully, they’ll have given up on us and be asleep by now. And if they’re not,” he reached out to draw Twilight Jewel closer to him, “there’s something... personal... I’d like to take care of right now.”

Inside the house, Wishbone chose that moment to look out into the night, experiencing something close to a parent’s worry about a truant child at this late hour. What he saw caused him to grin, and he called Garnet and Lollipop to the window to share the view.

“How sweet,” cooed Garnet.

“How romantic,” sighed Lollipop.

“I should open the door and bellow, ‘What’s going on here?’” chuckled Wishbone, remembering a time or two from his past.

“You wouldn’t!” chastised Garnet, her eyes narrowing. “And just what would you know about kissing on the front porch, anyway?”

Lollipop giggled, earning a darkling glance from her brother. “Shouldn’t you be in bed by now?” he asked her.

“I’m not a foal anymore, Wishbone; but I am tired, so I’ll retire now.” She turned to leave, but not before flashing a wink at Garnet.

“Well?” queried Garnet when she and Wishbone were alone. “Were you the Casanova of your home town?”

“Hardly,” Wishbone admitted. “But I hope I’m your Casanova.”

“Oh, you are decidedly that!” whispered Garnet as she slipped into his forelegs.

The evening ended well in Neighberry.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Silent are the Bells
by Sugarberry (Sugrbery@aol.com)


Chapter 7
Competition


“Brie, I need your advice,” Dorian interrupted the mare unceremoniously in her office where she stood in front of the bookshelves, tome in hoof.

It had been days since Noreen’s garden party; raspberries and foalhood exploits and friends and neighbors were at the moment only hazy memories. Looking up numbly from the difficult legal writing that she was referring to, Brietta was capable only of croaking a hesitant, “Oh?” as she marked her place in the text with her hoof.

Dorian came up short. “I’m interrupting you.”

“It’s the Burtron problem; I know there’s a precedent...”

One look at her glazed eyes and Dorian made his retreat. “Later,” was all he said.

The stallion’s steps then took him to Sloan’s office where he walked in on a phone conversation.

“... a table for two for this evening... yes... thank-you.”

Dorian grinned. “You and Finella out on the town?” he queried.

“None of your business,” retorted Sloan. He stood up. “Is Brietta in her office?”

“No. She’s in conference.” Sort of.

“Oh.” The stallion sat down again, a scowl on his face. “What do you need to see me about?”

“Just checking on our schedule for tomorrow; Tanner wants us to meet him for lunch; does that work for you?”

Checking his calendar, Sloan jotted down a reminder. “Sure. I had nothing planned.”

“Great. I’ll get back to him then.” Dorian was on his way out when Colly came in with Sloan’s next client; his smile for the secretary was met with an icy dismissal.

Grabbing two cups of coffee-- hot and black-- Dorian retraced his steps to Brietta’s office; this time he tapped softly before sticking his head in. “Brie?”

The mare had moved to the padded window seat that ran the length of the windowed wall; and although still in possession of the book, she now offered a smile and an invitation.”

“Come in, Dorian.” She patted the seat next to her. “What’s your problem?”

Presenting her with one of the mugs of coffee, Dorian made himself comfortable. “It’s more a question of what you can do for me.”

Raising an inquisitive brow, Brietta took a sip of coffee. “What do you need?”

“A dinner date for this evening.”

Brietta choked on her coffee; when she was done with the coughing, she met his laughing gaze. “Ask Colly.”

“You’re a wicked one, aren’t you?” He lowered his voice. “Between you and me, I don’t want to ask Colly.”

“Why not?”

“She’s a big help at getting things done, but she’s not my idea of a dinner companion. I’d prefer to have you across the table.”

Closing her book, Brietta gave the proposal some thought. “I suppose my reputation won’t be sullied too badly to be seen in public with you. Which restaurant?”

“Cimbrel’s. And if you doubt my reputation, just remember that your father and grandfather trust me explicitly.”

“And Sloan?”

This time, Dorian choked on his coffee. “Your point?” he asked darkly.

Brietta, amused by this reaction, smiled. “Sloan did recommend you for the job here, I’ve been told. He must have some respect for your... work.”

Dorian seemed relieved by this answer. “We kept in touch after graduation, and he knew I wasn’t happy at Denton; so when Conrad and Aiden began discussing hiring, he let me know. And, yes, he vouched for my capabilities. But that’s beside the point. Will you have dinner with me?”

Brietta dug in her heals. “I’m still rather piqued over your assessment of my looks that day of Noreen’s party.”

Chuckling, Dorian attempted to redeem himself. “I’d unexpectedly came across a woodland fairy, I’d thought. But such a creature wouldn’t have tangled hair and shiny skin and cockleburs in her tail, now, would she? But I found it was much more satisfying to realize that you were a real flesh and bones equine– much more approachable, you know.”

“And does that explain your obvious infatuation with Finella the rest of that evening?”

Dorian’s eyes sparkled. “Number one, you disappeared. Number two, Sloan wasn’t available. Number three, after you finally showed up, you were immediately surrounded by an admiring court which made it difficult if not impossible to so much as talk with you. I rest my case.”

“I still find you guilty, and your sentence is to someday be coated with those miserable cockleburs.”

“Dinner. Tonight.”

A moment of hesitation was followed by a tentative smile and a stuttered, “Y... yes.”v
If Dorian was concerned over the hesitation, he did not show it. “That’s great! I’ll pick you up at... seven-thirty?”

The arrangements having been finalized, Dorian left Brietta to her work. She was busily scribbling down notes a half hour later when Sloan made an appearance in her doorway.

“Excuse me, Brietta. Can I see you a minute?”

The mare set down the pen she was using and leaned back in her chair, restraining the urge to yawn and stretch. “Certainly.” She had not been alone with Sloan since their not so profitable encounter some days back when Sloan had suggested that they start their relationship over, thus prompting some muddled thoughts and sleepless nights; she hoped that memory did not show in her face.

But Sloan sat in the chair next to her desk and made it clear that moment was uppermost in his mind. “We haven’t had a chance to really talk since you got back to Whitehall.”

Brietta felt her face pale. “This isn’t the time or the place...”

“I know that,” Sloan interrupted. “I’d like to take you out to dinner.”

“When?”

“Tonight.”

Feeling a conflict of opinion that tore her between sorrow that she could not respond with an emphatic yes and relief that she could avoid the meeting with an honest no, she stammered, “Y... you’re timing’s way off. D... Dorian, you see, has already spoken for my company this evening.”

If she had wanted to hurt Sloan after all these years for those cruel words he had spoken to Finella in Brietta’s hearing at that long ago dance– She’s kind of like my little sister– Brietta could not have done better. The stallion stiffened and a frown creased his face. “When did he ask you?”

Unaware of Sloan’s knowledge concerning Dorian’s accidental discovery of Sloan’s plans for the evening, Brietta admitted, “Just a little while ago. Why do you ask?”

She was surprised by the anger in his eyes, but he merely shrugged his shoulders. “Just curious.” And he was gone.

If Brietta had not been due in Conrad’s office, she would have taken the time to contemplate the just completed scenario; but as it was, she only briefly ruminated over the fact that Sloan, who had blatantly ended their relationship without the hint of a reason other than Finella, had no right to be upset by Brietta’s interest in Dorian all these years later.

It felt good, she found, to be on the other side. It was with a clear conscience that she met her grandfather and with stunning directness that she outlined the defense of the case in question.

* * *
“This is excellent!” cooed Brietta, tasting the display on her plate experimentally. “You were right about it. And here I would never eat fish because I thought I didn’t like it.”

“I used to fish as a foal some Sunday afternoons and became quite a connoisseur. Of course, buying it this way takes away all the fun of cleaning it and...”

“Please! Spare me the details,” Brietta laughed. “I accept the fact that you are a fisherpony; that’s enough for me.”

“I’ll take you out on Grand Lake sometime; Sloan enjoyed our outing the other day and agrees that we should take to the water more often.”

“I suppose he finds it more enjoyable than our frogging escapades used to be.”

“I couldn’t answer for that, but yet something tells me your adventures together might rank a little higher.”

“Did you ever do any ocean fishing?” Brietta was quick to change the subject.

“Just once. It was thrilling. I even saw a shark.”

“Oh! How exciting. Tell me about it.”

“Well, as it involved cleaning some fish I’d caught, I don’t think you’d enjoy it,” Dorian grinned.

“Maybe another time.” Brietta grimaced. “I’m not entirely alien to the sport of fishing; Shayla, Sloan, and I would sometimes take poles to our little lake.” She sat envisioning those episodes of her young life. “I suppose that’s why I grew to hate fish,” she giggled. “I found the entire process somewhat disconcerting.”

“Ah... but being amidst the sights and sounds of nature is worth it.”

Awareness of a discrepancy crept across Brietta’s face. “At the house that night we met, you didn’t know what the sound of the frogs was; now you tell me you’re proficient as a fisherpony. One or the other of those two facts doesn’t... hold water.” She scowled at him.

“Guilty as accused,” Dorian laughed. “My ignorance over the frogs that night was a ploy to get you out of the house... and it succeeded quite well.”

Brietta dropped her gaze, remembering all too clearly that light brush of a kiss she had received.

“I’m surprised Sloan didn’t give me away, but he didn’t... his loss, my gain,” said Dorian, a touch of gentleness in his voice revealing that the kiss was foremost on his mind as well.

“Do you make a habit of deceit?” Brietta asked, her disquiet making the question sound harsher than she intended.

Dorian looked uncomfortable. “I’d rather call it craftiness.” Seeing the need to turn the conversation to a safer subject, he asked, “What do you enjoy doing for recreation?”

“You’ll find that I am not at all athletic, but I do enjoy long walks over the acres of Whitehall Place better than anything.”

“I look forward to experiencing one of those with you.”

Knowing that a soft blush had risen in her cheeks at those warm words, Brietta turned her full attention to the meal before her for several minutes before speaking again, and the conversation became less personal.

Brietta was in the middle of a story concerning the history of Whitehall when she saw a look of consternation come over Dorian’s face as he watched something beyond her, but it only lasted a moment before he regained a look of interest in what she was saying. Brietta, however, thought she knew what might have caused his fleeting perplexity.

“You just saw someone you know.”

“What? No... no.”

Not believing him, she asked, “Is it Sloan?”

He looked at her intently, but finally answered. “No, not Sloan. But why did you think that?” He turned the inquisition on her.

“He asked me out to dinner today, too. He wasn’t too pleased to learn that I had accepted your invitation. I thought he might be here with Finella.”

“Is that why you accepted my invitation... so you could flaunt your independence from him?”

“If that’s what you think, then I’m sorry I came.” Fire flashed in her eyes.

“Brie! I’m sorry. I can’t help but wonder about the two of you, growing up together the way you did, and now being so... detached.”

“I told you once before that he outgrew our friendship when he met Finella.”

“And when was that?”

“Nosy, aren’t you.”

“Interested.”

Brietta sighed. “He brought her home after he had found a place in Pembroke to live while he was in law school.”

“How old were you then?”

“It was the summer before my sophomore year in college.”

“You’d been dating Sloan up until that time?”

“I don’t think we ever considered it dating; we always assumed that the other one would be there. Of course, his being in college at Palisades meant we didn’t see each other except on his vacations for his first three years; so maybe we had drifted apart without my knowing it. But that one year when we were both at Palisades while I was a freshman and he was a senior, we were like foals again. When he dumped me for Finella, I vowed that I would never let him get close to me again.”

“That was, what, six years ago?”

“Yes. Finella was still in medical school herself; she must not have finished her residency until about the time you came to Whitehall.”

“It’s funny. Sloan never mentioned her when we were at Pembroke either; I never knew she existed until I got here. He didn’t like to discuss his female friends with me.” He looked at Brietta pointedly.

Brietta shrugged. “He wouldn’t have wanted anything to detract him from his studies; he was dedicated that way.”

Dorian was silent, fiddling with the napkin while he considered something.

“What are you thinking about?” She noticed that the stallion’s dark blue eyes looked black in his present serious mood.

“I knew Sloan was going to ask you out, so I made sure I talked to you first.”

“I thought you and Sloan were friends.”

“We are; that’s why I’m admitting my scheme to you.”

“Why did you cut in on him?”

“Because he had his chance with you. I made my own opportunity.”

The waiter came to clear their dinner plates, and the ponies ordered dessert. No way did Brietta want to leave this conversation dangling, however. When they were alone once more, she said, “I’m glad you did... make your own opportunity, that is.”

The blue eyes brightened, but he remained skeptical. “No regrets?”

“I’ve had to put Sloan out of my mind for six years; and since I’ve been back, he’s had all these weeks to smooth over the past, but he’s retained Finella’s companionship. I don’t think you or I need to have any regrets.”

“Then be warned: I’m going to do my best to win your affection.” He leaned across the table to take her hoof in his, and Brietta did not resist.

“Time will tell, now, won’t it?” she smiled.

* * *
The two ponies were in no hurry to reach Whitehall Place; their pace from the restaurant had been purposely slow. At times they were deep in conversation, at other times companionably quiet. But they all too soon were approaching the venerable estate; lights played against the stone facade, climbing ever higher past the elegant windows of the first, then the second, and finally the third floor dormers that fed from the roofing, and soaring higher yet to envelop the bell tower itself, following the two colonnades that began at ground level and rose past the Palladian window, sweeping up to lend their strong support to the louvered extremities of the bulwark. The two stopped to admire the sight.

“I’ll never get used to the grandeur of this place,” Dorian admitted. “Every time I see it, I expect to see royalty.”

“When I was a foal, I wished I could have lived in Whitehall Place’s early days; Grandfather said the original family had eight children, several of whom brought their spouses to live here after they were grown and married– plus the servants required to keep it all running. Can you imagine the activity? The bells would have been used on a regular basis to announce news of import. How I would love to hear those bells!”

“You could turn this place into a night spot: restaurant, dance hall, billiards, gambling-- and let ponies experience a taste of the elegant life.”

“This is my home your talking about,” Brietta punched the stallion in the shoulder unceremoniously. “Would you want your home turned into a public spectacle?”

“You’re asking the wrong stallion; I didn’t have a home, remember?”

“So that’s what makes you ruthless!”

“Ruthless, am I? Just because I see potential in an establishment like this?” A wave of his hoof took in the serenely situated edifice.

“Don’t let Grandfather or Father hear you talk like this; you would find your position with them forfeit.” Brietta did not look too pleased herself, finding it too close to Ryan and Connor’s discussion of Ravenridge.

“Is that a threat, Miss Manning?”

“Yes, I guess it is; and as I would miss you, please keep your mouth shut.”

“I’d miss you, too, so I’ll trash my development plans.”

They had begun walking toward the house once more when Dorian made a suggestion. “Let’s walk over to the pond and listen to the frogs again.” He took her hoof without waiting for her answer.

“So what’s your fascination with amphibians?”

“Too many fairy tales, I guess.”

The melody of the frogs filled the darkness as Brietta and Dorian, hoof in hoof, approached the spit of land where they had stood the night of Brietta’s welcome home party. They approached it quietly, but the frogs heard their hoofsteps and plopped themselves into their watery world.

“That’s cool,” Dorian grinned, referring to the sound of their bulgy bodies hitting the water.

“Do you ever fish at night?” Brietta queried.

“Now that’s something I never tried,” he laughed; and before Brietta knew what he was about, he had her in his clasp. “We could attempt it, you and I.” He bent to kiss her.

At that instant, there was a giggle and a rush of bodies past their legs; Brietta screamed while Dorian reached out to intercept whoever it was that dared interfere with this romantic interlude. Dorian’s attempt came up with a wriggling foal, faintly visible in the ghostly darkness. “Who are you and what are you doing here?” he boomed at the trespasser.

“Me watchin’ frogs,” a little voice said.

Brietta, conscious now of two other colts standing nearby to watch the fate of their comrade, giggled. “I bet they’re Anna and Clarence’s grandfoal’s. I remember hearing that they’d be visiting for a few days.” To the foals, she said, “I’m Brietta. Your grandmother cooks for my parents and me. I’m sorry we disturbed your frog hunt.”

“That’s okay,” the oldest of the three said good-naturedly. “It’s getting pretty dark now anyway; Grandma’ll be worried.”

Dorian released his hold on the foal, and the young pony edged his way to where Brietta stood; he must have heard something in her voice that gave him courage, for he stood by her expectantly.

“Come on, Kent,” the middle youngster said. “Let’s get going.”

The foal looked up at Brietta. “Come on,” he urged, taking her hoof.

“You heard him,” Brietta grinned through the starlight at Dorian. “Let’s get going!”

“Just what I need,” muttered Dorian. “Three pint-sized chaperones.”

“Aw. But they’re so cute!”

“How can you tell? It’s too dark to see...” A grunt from the stallion as his hoof found a hole in the turf intervened. “... clearly.”

Laughing, Brietta queried. “You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”

“Look! There’s a shooting star!” the oldest colt called, pointing to the star-sprinkled sky.

“Where?” asked Kent, peering upward.

“It’s gone,” said his brother.

“But I want to see it!” the foal argued.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” Dorian muttered. “Here.” He swung the foal up into his forelegs. “Watch the sky; maybe you’ll see another.”

“Where?”

“Up there!” The stallion waggled his hoof toward the heavens.

By this time, the troupe was nearing the back door of the mansion where only one light sent its welcome glow down a stepping-stone path. Brietta could now see the foals better, and she remembered one of them as Todd, who had been a baby foal himself the last time she had seen him in the company of his grandparents.

“Todd, I met you years ago; I remember you playing with one of the kittens down in the barn.”

“Me have a kitten,” Kent advised her.

“We’ve met Kent. What’s your name?” Brietta asked of the still unknown colt.

“Chad.”

“Nice to meet you, Chad. As I said earlier, I’m Brietta; and this is Dorian.”

The back door opened, and Anna came out to the porch. “Where have you ragamuffins been off to? Me and your granddad have been getting worried.”

Dorian set Kent on the ground at her hooves. “They were down with the frogs, Anna... just like Brie and me.”

Anna frowned at Brietta. “I’d have thought you’d outgrown that.”

“They was kissin’,” Kent relayed, making a disgusting face to show his feelings on that subject.

“Huh!” Dorian expressed his own disapproval. “Thanks to you three... ragamuffins... there was no kiss!” He scowled in such a manner that it sent Kent scurrying behind his grandmother for refuge.

Now Anna laughed. “Well, it might not make up for what you missed,” she winked at Brietta, “but I just finished frosting a batch of homemade brownies... with walnuts,” she ended in a coaxing tone.

“Well, maybe.” Dorian grudgingly grinned. “It’s the walnuts that won me over.”

While Clarence took the colts off to be washed-up, Brietta helped Anna set out the milk and plates; Dorian was set to work cutting the brownies. By the time Todd, Chad, and Kent– along with their grandfather– returned, everyone was ready to enjoy the tempting treat; and before long the pan was empty.

“Never had a brownie that tasted that good,” Dorian admitted. “You‘re unbeatable, Anna.”

“Been using the same recipe since Brietta was a little tyke no bigger than Kent. She and Sloan would come out here to the kitchen begging for food; and brownies was what pleased them most.”

Dorian looked at Brietta who had Kent leaning into her where she sat, her hoof stroking the foal’s mane. “What a charming picture,” he murmured, leaving Brietta in the dark as to whether he was referring to the picture of her and Sloan begging for brownies or the current little foal falling asleep by her side.

As Todd and Chad were the outdoors type and avid fisherponies, they pumped Dorian for fish stories which, once the stallion was warmed-up, he provided with plenty of varied truths and yarns. Brietta slipped off with Anna to tuck the sleepy Kent into bed.

When the mares returned to the kitchen, the colts were enticing Dorian with the idea of an afternoon of fishing on the following Saturday; by the time they went off to bed, the plans had blossomed into an excursion which would include a picnic lunch provided by Anna; it was only after some bargaining with the colts that Dorian succeeded in getting their approval for Brietta to join the venture.

“It will be a good initiation for you in the sport so you can learn how it’s done properly,” he grinned at the mare as Brietta walked him to the front door.

“I plan to take my sketch pad and fritter away the time quite apart from your fish,” she asserted.

“Spoil-sport,” he teased.

Conrad came out of the den; and seeing the two ponies by the door, he came to join them. “There’s an article in the paper about how Freemont is handling their expansion efforts, Dorian; I think you’ll find it interesting.” To Brietta, he said, “I’ve got an idea or two for you on your Tremont case that I’d like to discuss.”

“That will be fine, Grandfather; Dorian was just leaving.” She smiled at the stallion. “Thanks for dinner.”

“My pleasure.” He looked as if he wanted to say more, but Conrad’s presence cut him short. “Goodnight, Conrad. Goodnight, Brie.” He touched her hoof and went out into the night with Conrad closing the door behind him.

* * *
When Brietta got to work the following morning in the company of Aiden and Conrad, she found Sloan talking with Colly; they both looked at her inquisitively as she came in, wondering, Brietta was sure, if she and Dorian had a pleasant dinner. Brietta obliged them with a cheerful smile. “It’s a truly gorgeous day,” she said brightly.

Colly said nothing, and Sloan got down to business. “Colly set some files on our desks before she left last evening; but I seem to have the ones you’ll need and you’ll probably have mine.”

“Thanks,” Brietta said, taking the files from Sloan’s hoof. “I’ll check the ones in my office and get right back to you.” She set off briskly down the hall while Conrad and Aiden went into Aiden’s office to continue the discussion that had occupied them since breakfast.

Brietta had no sooner gotten the errant files off her desk in hoof when she heard Dorian’s exuberant entrance into the building. “Good morning, Colly... Sloan. Is Brie in? Thanks!” She heard his hooffall advancing her way.

Coming through her doorway with no hesitation, he quickly stepped across the room saying cheerfully, “I have something for you, Miss Manning.”

Brietta’s startled look at his empty hooves was soon satisfied as he put his forelegs around her. “No interruptions this time.” He kissed her soundly.

A gasp from the doorway forced them apart and two guilty faces turned to see Colly and Sloan standing there. Sloan, his anger apparent, turned immediately and left. Colly, however, censure ensuing from her like spitting sparks, walked to the desk to retrieve the folders Brietta had dropped during the kiss, and with one final cutting glance at the two of them, turned abruptly and left them to themselves.

“I’m sorry...” Dorian began, although his grin did not lend much credulity to his words.

Brietta silenced him. “I’m not.” Her eyes conveyed her meaning and her lips verified it as she returned the kiss.

“You minx!” Dorian eventually said. “And here I thought all lawyers were staid.”

“Look who’s talking.”

Brietta had extricated herself from Dorian’s embrace just before her father stuck his head in. “We’re waiting for you two in the conference room.”

“Oh, my!” exclaimed Brietta. “Look at the time already.” She hurriedly rustled through some papers in her desk, retrieving what she needed. “We’re on our way.” She looked up to catch her father’s critical gaze, but caught the smile that lurked around his mouth.

Brietta was on her way out when she realized Dorian was still standing by her desk. “Hurry up!” she advised, brushing her hair back with a hoof.

“How did you to that?” the stallion asked.

“Do what?”

“You went from flirty female to laborious lawyer in the blink of an eye.”

She rolled her eyes and left him standing, but he made it to the conference immediately behind her. The available chairs sat him across the table from her, and she made it a point to avoid his face.

After the dispersal of the meeting, Brietta had a full day of appointments and was just arranging her desk at day’s end when her father came into her office.

“Ready to go home?” he asked.

“Give me a minute.”

Aiden set a note down in front of her. “Dorian asked me to give you this.”

Brietta looked up. “Why didn’t he give it to me himself?”

“He got a phone call– someone needed to see him on some urgent business.”

Opening the note, Brietta read: Brie– I’ll be tied up until late this eve, but I haven’t forgotten our fishing rendezvous. I’ll be at Whitehall Place tomorrow as planned. Dorian. P.S. Don’t forget to dig the worms.

“Worms, indeed!”

“What was that, dear?” Aiden asked.

“Dorian and I are taking Anna’s grandfoal’s fishing tomorrow, and Dorian has the nerve to tell me to dig worms.”

“The colts will have that taken care of,” he assured her with a chuckle. “I heard about your adventure last night at the lake.”

“You didn’t read about it in the paper, I hope.” She cast a suspicious glance at the folded newspaper in his hoof.

“Your mother called today and mentioned it; I gather that little Kent gave her an all inclusive first-hoof account.”

“Yes. Three rocks erupting into three little ponies in the semi-darkness while one’s mind is... elsewhere... can be quite a distraction.”

“I couldn’t help but notice that Sloan’s mood seems to plunge when yours peaks.”

“He has Finella, Father-dear. Don’t I deserve Dorian?”

“Whether you deserve him or not isn’t the point; I think Dorian doesn’t stand a chance against your wiles if you’ve made up your mind to have him.”

Brietta smiled. “I’m glad you understand me. Let’s go home.”



Chapter 8
Fishing Time


Saturday dawned sunny, warm, and moderately breezy, a perfect day to sit at the pond and relax. At least, that was Brietta’s plan; her sketch pad was in hoof. But Kent, Chad, and Todd had other ideas. They could barely wait for Dorian’s arrival and, in the meantime, got underhoof in the kitchen where Anna was preparing the picnic lunch.

“Did anyone dig the worms?” Brietta asked, coming into the room to await Dorian with the colts. Lissy had braided her purple mane and tail, overseen a liberal application of lotion and insect repellent, and pushed a floppy straw hat into her hooves to ward off the penetrating sun.

“They’re waiting in a bucket on the back porch,” Chad said. “Do you want to see them?” He was already to the door in his enthusiasm.

“No... no... I’ll see them soon enough, I’m sure. Anna, what can I help you with?”

“The potato salad’s in the ‘fridge. You can nest the container in some ice to keep it fresh.”

Lena came along to oversee the preparations for the day’s outing. “Have you got plenty of lemonade?” she asked, accepting a hurried hug from Kent as he passed.

“Enough of everything!” Brietta exclaimed, realizing how much food and drink Anna had prepared.

“The boys’ll be hungry,” she said knowledgeably. “The fresh air’ll do that to the young ‘uns.”

“And the older ones, too!” Brietta giggled, tasting some of the tantalizing salad before her.

“He’s here!” Todd called out, creating a stampede as the three colts ran out the door to meet the stallion who had promised them a chance to use his top-of-the-line rod and reel. Brietta trailed behind.

“Here it is, Todd. Have you ever seen such a beauty?” Dorian handed the pole to the colt, but he was looking at Brietta. “Good morning.”

“Hi.” She suddenly felt bashful facing his admiring glance. “The colts have been impatient for your arrival.”

“And what about you?” he asked, his eyes holding hers even while Kent was trying to pull him away to show him his own fishing pole.

Brietta avoided a response. “Where did you disappear to yesterday?”

Dorian looked away. “Someone needed my advice. Chad, bring me that creel you were telling me about.”

While the colts and stallion organized their equipment, Brietta returned to the house and helped Anna organize the food into a picnic hamper which Clarence was going to help carry to the fishing site which was located on the far side of the lake.

Before Brietta could follow Clarence out of the house, Anna called her back. “You forgot your hat.”

“Thanks. Lissy would be disappointed in me if I left that behind.” The maid had been horrified to learn that Brietta had gone berry picking with nothing more than a bandana covering her head and wagged her hoof at her about the harmful effects of too much sunshine. Brietta set the broad-brimmed hat jauntily on her head and went to join the others who had now gotten their gear together for what looked like a major excursion.

“We’re only going...” she began, but Dorian silenced her with a look.

“We are going on an expedition of merit across the land to parley with...”

“...the evil water creatures...” supplied a grinning Chad.

“Yes... them... and win a victory that will ensure food for our loyal subjects...”

“... who rely on us for peace and sustenance...” Todd added.

“... for all time.”

“Me want to get started!” pleaded Kent.

“Onward!” intoned Clarence.

“Finally!” giggled Brietta.

The colts took the lead in the caravan with Todd sharing the load of the picnic hamper with his grandfather, Kent being in charge of the worms, and Chad with the creel and poles. Dorian, retaining possession of his more sophisticated pole and tackle box, fell into step next to Brietta who carried two jugs of lemonade.

“The mighty has fallen,” he commented after a sideways glance at the mare.”

Brietta, missing his point, gave him a questioning look.

“The sedate lawyer looks like a peasant girl... again.”

“You don’t like my hat?” she said sulkily, patting the woven chapeau.

“Who said I don’t like it? You look... quaint.”

“So you don’t like the hat!”

Chad intervened. “I think she looks awfully pretty,” whereupon Brietta, with a toss of her head, laughingly deserted the handsome grey stallion for the promising colt.

Passing the edge of the pond closest to the house, the ponies circled around to the far side where the deepest waters lay. Here, the meadow ended at a steep bank that plunged to the water’s edge, disappearing into the unseen depths. Clarence and Todd set their burden under a shady maple, and Clarence stretched his muscles while the colt bolted to join his brothers and Dorian amidst the poles and paraphernalia.

“This brings back memories,” Clarence said softly to Brietta as the mare stood gazing across the sparkling water.

“Doesn’t it though?” Brietta agreed. “You watched over any number of picnic parties here for Shayla and Sloan and I.”

“Not that you or Shayla ever fished that much; Sloan was the only one interested in that.”

“Shayla and I pretended to be elegant ladies spreading out our picnic lunch on that grand cloth Anna always let us use.”

“And Sloan was your knight back then,” Clarence observed.

Brietta looked to where Dorian was standing, surrounded by the colts, and smiled. “A new day, a new knight,” she quipped.

“On that note,” Clarence grinned, “I’ll leave you to your fishin’... unless you think you’ll need my assistance with the boys.”

“They’ll be no trouble; besides, Anna was expecting your help in the garden, I believe.”

“I’ll be back later to help pack the hamper home, plus all those fish you’ll catch.”

Clarence admonished the colts to be careful near the water and headed back to the house. The boys by this time were ready to cast their lines into the water. Dorian brought a fishing pole to Brietta. “Ready to try your luck?”

“I thought I was here as a spectator.”

“What’s the fun in that? Here, take the pole; it’s baited and ready to go.”

Brietta took the simple cane pole he held out to her and tentatively moved it through the air. “What do I do now?” she queried.

“Avoid snagging a pony,” he said, ducking out of the way of her errant line.

“I suppose I have to get it in the water...”

“You’re a quick learner, Brie,” Dorian scoffed. “Just watch Kent; he knows what he’s doing!”

Kent turned and grinned at the mare; he was sitting near the edge of the bank, his line already dangling in the pond. Like Brietta, the youngster had a cane pole but with the addition of a red and white bobber on the line which floated gaily in the ripples of motion.

“Why don’t I have one of those?” Brietta questioned Dorian while pointing her hoof at the plastic sphere.

Dorian rolled his eyes. “Because you’ll be able to feel the fish when it pulls on your line.”

“I think I’d rather have a bobber like Kent’s.”

“Have it your way,” the stallion said, getting another from his tackle box and snapping it on the line to the amusement of Chad and Todd who were fishing with higher quality gear. “Now, cast it over the water and let the line drop.”

The line swung crazily back and forth before it finally hit the water and the bobber settled on the surface. “Now, wait,” Dorian stated, leaving the mare so that he could cast his fishing line beyond the reach of either Brietta’s or Kent’s poles.

Making herself comfortable in the fresh green grass that was marked with little clusters of wild violets and the bright yellow florets of dandelions, Brietta was fanned by soft breezes as she watched for any movement of the bobber that so far had remained placidly afloat.

Kent’s bobber, however, suddenly took an abrupt dive; and the foal quickly pulled up and back on his pole, bringing up a shiny silvery fish that came flying through the air in Brietta’s direction and dropped off the hook to slap against her side.

“Ugh!” she gasped, wriggling away from the flopping fish which was captured by an enthusiastic Kent and promptly deposited in the bucket prepared for the purpose.

“Come see,” he motioned to Brietta.

Setting her pole on the ground with the line still submerged, Brietta went to congratulate the foal on his catch; Dorian and the other colts came as well to ooh and aah over the specimen. When Brietta returned to her pole, she found that she, too, had a bite and pulled in a catch for herself which Dorian relegated to the pail along with Kent’s.

“Beginner’s luck!” he retorted to Brietta’s comment on landing one before him.

Before long, both Chad and Todd pulled in quite large fish, followed by Dorian’s catch of a bottom-feeding bullhead. Brietta had never seen such an ugly fish.

“It has whiskers!” She jumped back from the brown body in sudden dislike.

“And you don’t want to touch them,” Dorian warned. “They sting and hurt something fierce.” He was careful himself in manipulating the brute. “But the fish has an excellent flavor... lots of meat and not many bones.”

Kent, having struggled to bait his hook, carried his pole to Brietta. “Help me.” He dropped a worm in her hoof which was promptly dropped by the mare.

“Oh, Kent, I couldn’t. Dorian will help you.”

Kent rooted the worm out of the grass and headed for the stallion who shook his head at Brietta. “It doesn’t pay to be squeamish, Brie.” After securing the foal’s bait, Dorian came to Brietta. “How’s your hook doing?”

“Fine,” she said.

“Let me see,” he insisted.

Brietta drew the line out of the water and swung it up to the bank, revealing a clean hook with not a trace of bait left.

“This might explain why you haven’t gotten a bite lately.”

“I didn’t want to bother you.”

“Fat chance I’d ever find you a bother,” he said, fixing the bait deftly and flashing her a warm smile that rivaled the sun before sending her back to the pond’s edge.

As they waited in the calm and quiet surroundings for more action on the lines, Todd asked, “Why don’t girls like worms anyway?”

Brietta shuddered. “If you don’t understand instinctively, there’s no use trying to explain it. And, besides, I’ve known some colts who don’t like worms any better than I do.”

Dorian laughed. “I’ll bet you’ve never given the annelids a chance, Brie.”

“You may have all the annelids for yourself, thank you.”

“Their lives aren’t always easy, either.”

“Spare me.”

“What do you mean?” Chad interrupted the sparring between the two adults.

“Well, for one thing, moles like to eat earthworms; and they need to eat a lot of them,” began Dorian as he hauled another fish to shore. “The moles are industrious; they carve little storerooms off their underground tunnels in which to hold their victims.”

“They catch worms for future meals?” queried an interested Todd.

“Yeah. Hundreds, even thousands of them when conditions are good.”

“Do they kill ‘em first?” asked Kent, his eyes focused on Dorian as he listened to these morbid facts.

“Well, they do bite the worm’s head end off and twist the worm into a knot and push it into the storeroom, but the earthworms aren’t really dead.”

“They’re not?”

“Nope. They’re in the process of growing back new heads. So if the mole doesn’t get back to them before that process is complete, he loses his captive.”

“You made that up,” rebutted Brietta

“You doubt me? It’s for real; it was in my biology book back in high school.”

The colts were impressed. “We have moles in our yard at home; I’ll dig some of their tunnels up to find out if they have worms stored,” planned Chad.

“Let me know,” Brietta dared.

As the conversation trickled off to a comfortable silence again, Brietta intently watched the bobber gently rolling in the water which put her in a trance-like stupor. Suddenly, Dorian pulled heavily on his line and said in subdued excitement, “It’s big!”

Chad and Todd, deserting their poles, came to watch what would break the surface as the line was pulled in. As the fish broke the water and came sailing to the land, Kent jumped up from his spot at the edge of the bank, also deserting his pole.

As the foal watched the granddaddy of bullheads struggle in the grass, his own line got a bite and his pole began to be pulled over the rim of the bank. Catching sight of what was happening, Kent ran to grab the pole; but his momentum carried him over the edge as he grasped for it.

Brietta, helpless to stop him, gasped as the foal tumbled down the bank and landed with a splash in the water below.

Dorian, however, had seen the foal disappear over the edge and immediately raced to save the sputtering baby pony as he floundered at the pond’s edge. Sliding down the soft earthen bank, the stallion grabbed the foal’s mane, effectively preventing him from submerging once more, and pulled him up and onto the shore.

It had happened so fast that Brietta had no time to be frightened; but as Dorian brought the soaked foal back up to the grassy embankment, she suddenly began trembling. “Kent, are you okay?” she asked, while the foal coughed and spit up water.

“My pole!” was all he said when he found his voice.

“Duffus!” Chad admonished his brother. “You weren’t supposed to tumble into the pond!”

The foal ignored the taunt and, shaking his mane and tail which showered the other ponies with pond water, wailed again for his pole.

“Here it is,” Todd remarked, fetching the pole from the water, using Brietta’s to snare it. “It’s okay, too, so don’t worry. And look at the size of the fish that’s on it!”

Although not as large as the leviathan Dorian had pulled in, Kent’s fish was a dandy; and pride shone in his eyes. Brietta, concerned over his dousing, borrowed the picnic cloth Anna had packed to dry the foal as best she could. Kent, however, wanted to get back to fishing and shrugged off her care.

“He’ll dry in the sun,” Dorian told the mare. “He’s not that fragile.”

“Thanks for reacting so fast to rescue him,” she said, watching as the stallion turned his attention to the fish he had snared.

“You’d have pulled him out if I hadn’t.”

“I froze,” Brietta admitted. “You responded.”

“Kent fell out of a boat once,” Todd offered. “Dad pulled him in that time.”

“You’d think he’d learn,” Chad remarked.

“Let’s lay out the lunch,” Dorian suggested, rinsing his hooves in a pail of clear water.

Dorian and Brietta walked back to the shady shelter of the willow tree and spread the damp cloth on the greensward. To make her work easier and to give herself a wider field of vision, Brietta removed her floppy hat.

Dorian, noticing her frequent glances to the lake side, offered reassurance. “He won’t go over again.”

“And how would you know that?” she snapped. “He could very easily tumble in a second time!” She set out containers of food in a huff, and Dorian sighed.

“You don’t enjoy fishing.” He said it almost with regret, and Brietta cast a speculative glance at him.

“Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters, if we’re to have a future together.”

Brietta openly stared at him, but the foals had realized they were hungry and came swarming to the picnic site like the ants who were already making a nuisance of themselves; all privacy was gone and Brietta could make no response to Dorian’s curious comment.

The colts ate gustily of their grandmother’s excellent spread, talking fish-talk with Dorian who sat against the tree trunk, seeming to enjoy the endless exchange of prattle by the colts. Brietta, unable to forget Dorian’s words to her, nonetheless went through the motions of serving the lemonade and making sure everyone else had loaded plates before she settled down to eat even though she felt not a bit hungry. But the first bite teased her appetite so that she was soon back in the spirit of the outing and laughing and talking with the others happily.

When sated, Chad and Todd returned to the lake to explore the perimeter before returning to their fishing. Dorian, lounging lazily under the tree, closed his eyes; Kent, his full tummy accentuating his sleepiness, curled up comfortably near the stallion. Brietta cleared the picnic cloth and returned everything back to the hamper.

That finished, she picked up her hat and debated walking after the colts or just relaxing in the shade. She looked at Dorian and the foal, both now so quiet as to verify that they had fallen asleep. Chad and Todd were around the curve of the pond and seemed intent on their excursion; thinking that her presence would only infringe on their carefree jaunt, Brietta picked a spot a respectable distance from the slumbering stallion and sat down to enjoy the balmy day, abandoning the hat once more. The intense quiet was broken only by the chirp of insects and the occasional shout or laughter carrying across the pond from the colts.

Alone with her thoughts, Brietta’s mind drifted back to Dorian’s earlier comment, ...if we’re to have a future together. If they had not been interrupted, where would that have led? They had only known each other since her arrival back at Whitehall, but they had seemed familiarly close since their first meeting. They certainly did not know one another well enough to even think of a future together, but yet...

Brietta’s gaze settled on the sleeping stallion. His light grey color was mottled from the sunlight sifting through the leaves overhead; his violet hair lay in a gentle cascade over his side with some curling around his face. What a friend he had become since her homecoming! She knew that her days were made brighter by his humor and his gallant attention; he had a dauntless spirit that carried those around him along on its waxing tide. She found him easy to love.

Love? She chided herself on even thinking that she was in love with him. Could one fall in love so unexpectedly? Especially, Brietta frowned, when one had been so sure of another love that had soured?

Brietta’s gaze left Dorian as her thoughts circled around to Sloan. She looked across the rippling lake and remembered how close they had once been. Their friendship had been a precious thing– she had thought it would last forever– but it had not been able to withstand long enough for them to make a permanent commitment to each other.

They had taken their friendship for granted until Sloan had left for college and their separation had hurt them both. Maybe for the first time, they had realized how much they meant to each other. The vacations Sloan had spent back in Whitehall became precious points of re-acquaintance and they had easily fallen back into their foalhood roles of best friends.

Sloan’s last year of college had been Brietta’s first; just being at the same campus was comforting, even though their schedules limited the time they could see each other. And Brietta had begun to think ahead to a time when their lives would have a chance to come together permanently.

They had never talked of marriage, but she had assumed as much. And Sloan was a methodical stallion who would expect to have all the pieces in place before he would even consider popping the question. Brietta had assumed, however, that his acceptance into law school and another separation looming ahead would have given him the resolve to propose. But, instead, he had brushed Brietta off in favor of Finella.

Brietta had written him off for his uncharacteristic behavior yet had expected him to come to her and make things right again; but he never came, and her coldness toward him had increased until she had stopped spending vacations at Whitehall just to avoid any unpleasantness on the chance that he, too, would be home at the same time.

But even at that, she had held to the hope that upon her arrival back in Whitehall as a lawyer with her father’s firm, sharing the same offices with Sloan, that he would finally relent and suggest that they return to their earlier camaraderie.

Disappointment had again met her full force when he had accompanied Finella to the event of their first reunion at Whitehall Place. No one, not even Brietta, could deny the significance of that. She had severed all feelings for the stallion and resolved never to look back, not even when Sloan had finally intimated that he was willing to start over.

Coming out of her reverie enough to be aware of motion beside her, Brietta looked up to find Dorian awake and coming her way. The transition from past to present was immediate as those dark blue eyes caught her own; the stallion reached out to touch her cheek and their lips met, and Brietta knew in an elusive way what their future together could be.

That a simple kiss could make her heart beat so frantically amazed Brietta; and if she was reading the stallion’s eyes right, Dorian had experienced the same sensation.

The thudding of the colts’ hooves coming in their direction mimicked the pounding of her heart; it also ended Brietta and Dorian’s seclusion once more, and it woke Kent from his nap.

“Look, a turtle!” Chad called as he and his brother came closer. He lifted up a hoof which held a dark, rigid oval. He turned it over as he reached them, revealing the bright orange underside of the reptile.

“How pretty,” said Brietta, running her hoof over the natural design.

“It’s a painted turtle,” Todd revealed.

“Let me see!” demanded Kent, finding all the action occurring over his head. “Who painted him?”

Chad lowered the turtle to his brother’s level, and the foal was delighted with the unusual animal. “They’re called painted turtles because of their brightly colored pattern.”

“Where’s his head?” Kent finally asked, peering into one of the holes of the shell.

“A mole probably ate it off,” muttered Brietta, with a laughing glance at Dorian.

The stallion narrowed his eyes. “We’ll see who has the last laugh when I produce the textbook that explains a mole’s lifestyle,” he threatened.

When the turtle was set on the ground and given some space, he remained quiet and reclusive; but when sufficient time had passed and his bravery returned, his head came out slowly. When he determined that all was safe, the legs and tail appeared and motion ensued. Moving with a surprising burst of speed, the turtle set off through the grass before stopping and turning his head to stare back sedately at the ponies for a moment or two before continuing his advance to the lake.

Deprived of his entertainment, Kent was ready to return to the object of the day. “Let’s fish!”

Chad and Todd were ready to return to the lake for more sport, too; and they eyed Dorian’s pole jealously. “Would you let us try your reel now?” Todd asked hopefully.

“I said I would, didn’t I?” Dorian grinned at the youngsters. “I’ll be right with you.” Before following them, however, he leaned to pick-up Brietta’s discarded hat from the grass, brush it off, and set it on the mare’s head. “I really do like the hat on you,” he winked and then left after the colts, leaving Brietta and Kent to make their own way to their places by the pond with the cane poles.

Reminding the foal to stay a safe distance from the edge of the bank, Brietta dropped her line in the water and settled down to watch Kent more carefully than before. Neither of them got a bite, and Kent eventually wandered off to watch his brothers with Dorian’s more refined equipment.

Brietta, watching the bobbing red and white ball out on the water, grew sleepy herself as the warm sunshine relaxed her and the sparkling water soothed her. She was aware that the others were occasionally catching something, and that Kent was in Dorian’s company. She soon could not keep her eyes open.

It was peaceful, this in-between state that was not really sleep but was not full consciousness either. The sun’s rays seemed to deaden the senses; even the occasional talk between the other ponies seemed distant and ethereal. The tickle of a grass blade slipped across a back leg so gently that to Brietta’s bleary mind, it could have been someone else’s appendage that was involved.

The tickle continued, however, and Brietta was forced to respond. In slow motion instilled by the sun-induced stupor, she absently brushed a forehoof across the offending irritation; and in a blink of an eye, the mare was on her hooves, producing a scream that echoed across the lake in striking brilliance.

Dorian and the colts came running to Brietta as she ran toward them. “What is it?” Dorian asked, his face wracked with concern precipitated by the horrible scream.

“A snake!” Brietta gasped, putting the stallion between her and the enemy.

Three young voices merrily echoed, “A snake?” and hastened to the spot to catch sight of the creature. Dorian’s voice was filled with laughter. “That horrific scream was because of a snake? I’d of thought you’d have been used to those inhabitants of the area, growing up near the pond as you did.”

“I have never gotten used to their slithering presence,” she muttered, looking at him peevishly as he continued to chuckle. “It was creeping over my leg.” The thought made her shudder.

“You poor dear,” he said unconvincingly. He patted her hoof, but Brietta only frowned at him which succeeded in expanding his grin. “Come on,” he enticed. “Let’s go check it out; I’ll protect you from the monster.” He took her hoof and towed her unwillingly to the top of the bank where the three youngsters were standing.

“He’s on that rock,” Todd pointed to one of the larger stones that littered the base of the exposed slope.

“He’s as afraid of your screeching as you are of him,” Chad observed.

Dorian chuckled some more, but Brietta allowed the stallion to put a protective foreleg around her; she found that with his support and the distance now between her and the snake, she could look upon it with equanimity. The ponies were still standing in a cluster when Clarence’s voice hailed them. The time had come for them to pack up their catch and their equipment and head back to the house.

Walking back around the lake, Brietta listened to the colts’ excited chatter as they told their grandfather about each fish they had caught, accented by Dorian’s occasional clarification or insertion. She found that the hours in the fresh air were taking their toll– she was tired and itchy, dirt-stained and sweaty, and she was fairly certain that she smelled of fish. All this together was fast putting her into a bad mood which Dorian sensitively seemed aware of; maybe he had learned something the day of the raspberry picking. When they got to Whitehall Place, he set his load down and came to her.

“To show what a gentlestallion I am, I won’t hold to my rule that the one who catches a fish has to clean it. Clarence assures me of his assistance in that matter and informs me that Anna plans on fixing our catch for supper, and that I’m invited to share the repast. Do you have any objections?”

“Of course not, as long as I can escape now to clean myself up.” She looked distastefully over her none-too-fresh body.

Dorian lifted the brim of her hat and kissed the tip of her nose. “Just don’t absent yourself too long.”

“Be assured I will not be back before the fish are ready for the pan.”

She was nearly to the door when Dorian called after her, “One cocklebur, dead center.”


Chapter 9
Of Guys and Gals


It was with a renewed spring in her step that Brietta returned to the living area of Whitehall Place; she had showered and allowed Lissy, who was still about her chores, to comb her hair into a pert loose style accented with several organdy bows that added a demure touch; a splash of floral cologne satisfied her that any part of the fishy atmosphere of the day had been eliminated, and she could smile again.

The smile was readily displayed when she saw that Dorian was with her parents and Conrad; Dorian had apparently finished his unpleasant chore and had an opportunity to dispense with the grime of the day as well. The look he gave Brietta as she entered the room was more of a caress, she felt it so keenly.

Brietta had just joined Dorian on the sofa when the doorbell rang, and Clarence came from the kitchen to answer it.

“Who could that be?” worried Lena, knowing that supper would soon be served.

Conrad supplied the answer. “Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that Sloan had called concerning a new development in a court case and had some questions. I told him to come eat with us, and we’d talk later.”

Sure enough, Clarence escorted Sloan into the room and quietly slipped away to add another place at the already extended table.

Conrad’s announcement had caused Brietta to flash a quick glance at her mother to see her response to an unexpected guest and then to Dorian to see his reaction; but the stallion showed only pleasure in his friend and business associate’s addition to the evening. Sloan revealed not the least bit of surprise to see Dorian and Brietta side-by-side on the couch, and the stallion was soon drawn into the conversation with no idea that his arrival had been without warning to the majority of the household.

When Clarence announced dinner, the ponies moved to the dining room where Todd, Chad, and Kent were already ensconced at the table at the special invitation of Lena who could not see the youngsters relegated to the kitchen when they had been responsible for securing the main course.

The colts dominated the conversation, finding a willing audience in Conrad, Aiden, and Sloan, all of whom showed a genuine interest in all the details involved with catching the fish that now graced their dinner plates. Brietta and Lena would have rather been spared the details, while Dorian only helped the colts along, reminding them of any particulars they left out.

Sloan and Dorian had stories in turn from some of their joint ventures; and as Brietta listened to their shared telling, she could not help comparing the two stallions. Sloan’s steel blue color was topped by yellow hair as opposed to the grey and violet of Dorian, but the differences in their personalities was even more apparent.

Sloan was always serious which meant that his rare smile was treasured like an unexpected rainbow; some found him too stoical and considered him standoffish and dispassionate; but they did not know how deeply his feelings ran. His patience and philosophic attitude covered his inner emotions. Lena had often praised him for his long-suffering in putting up with the more exuberant natures of Brietta and Shayla as they were growing up.

As sedate as Sloan was, Dorian was the opposite: impetuous and high-spirited with a quick wit and easy manner that drew ponies to him. Very debonair was how Shayla labeled him. As easily as he could induce a smile in others, he always had one available to give as well.

It would be hard to choose between them, if they both were courting my attention now, Brietta thought just as Dorian’s eyes caught hers; and she blushed to think that he could read what was going through her mind. The laughter in his eyes seemed to indicate that he did.

“Brietta found a snake,” Kent piped up, remembering a fact that no one else had volunteered. “It was big, too!” The foal’s forelegs reached out as widely as they could go.

“Brietta found it?” Sloan queried, looking at the mare in surprise. “Were you looking for it?”

“No,” Dorian was quick to reply. “It found her, actually.”

“Let me guess,” Sloan said, his face breaking into one of those infrequent smiles that released his lighter side. “She responded with a scream that could easily have registered at one hundred twenty decibels.”

“It was loud!” Kent grimaced.

Conrad deflected attention away from Brietta’s embarrassment by recalling an old story. “There was a snake pit– down near where the barn stands now– when the house was being built; it was a rocky place in amidst the trees, as I’ve been told, and became a writhing quagmire when the warm spring days made their appearance.”

“Is it still there?” eagerly asked the colts, their eyes riveted to Conrad’s face.

“Apparently not,” Aiden said. “I spent untold hours trying to discover that site when I was a colt. I did find a suspicious-looking pile of rocks in a grove of trees, however, that fed my curiosity for years.”

“Would you show us where it is?”

“I think that would be a grand adventure to partake of,” the lawyer replied, smiling at the colts with genuine delight. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been out surveying the land with such an enthusiastic group as you three.”

Sloan and Dorian exchanged a glance before Sloan asked, “Do you mind if Dorian and I tag along, sir?”

Plans were made for the expedition to take place the following afternoon, and Brietta firmly maintained her complete disinterest in their scheme; no amount of urging or belittling by either the colts or the stallions would convince her to be included. She stubbornly held her ground.

When Conrad and Sloan withdrew to the study for business matters, Dorian and Brietta tackled the colts in a board game that successfully captured their attention until the lateness of the hour finally succeeded in swaddling Kent in irrepressible yawning that soon had the other two colts appearing rather bleary-eyed in turn. Anna appeared to convey the three sleepy-heads to bed; but Todd, as exhausted as he was, turned to Dorian to say thank you for the day of fishing and to remind him not to forget the snake-hunting expedition the next day.

As Dorian and Brietta picked up the markers and paraphernalia of the game, Dorian observed, “You look beat.”

“A long day in the fresh air always takes its toll on me,” Brietta admitted, stifling a yawn.

“Being scared out of your wits didn’t help any either, I suppose,” the stallion grinned.

“I wasn’t scared out of my wits... exactly,” Brietta huffed. “It was surprise more than anything.” She looked at his laughing face dismally. “Is there nothing that you’re afraid of?”

He was suddenly serious. “Finding out that you still retain your former feelings for Sloan strikes fear into my heart,” he admitted, catching her hoof in his and looking at her so intensely that she forgot to breath.

Lena came into the room at that moment, and Brietta found that time began moving again. “I was just wondering if the two of you would like to have some iced tea with me out on the patio; it’s such a beautiful evening!”

Brietta accepted the invitation for the two of them before getting up and storing the game back in the cupboard. Dorian had joined her mother at the doorway, and the three of them made their way to the patio where Anna had set out a tea tray. Soft lighting gave a fanciful cast to the greens of the bushes and the normally vibrant shades of the flowers that edged the hewn stone blocks worn smooth by centuries of hooves.

“Where’s Father?” Brietta realized that Aiden was unaccountably missing..

Lena laughed. “He found some trite excuse to go into the study and hasn’t been seen since; I’m sure he was positive that Conrad and Sloan would make some abominable misinterpretation without his supervision.”

“Those three are dedicated, all right,” Dorian agreed.

“And what about you, Dorian?” Lena asked with a hint of disapproval coming through in her words.

The stallion grinned. “I think I’ve chosen the better path... I have two beautiful ladies to share the evening with.”

With a chuckle, Lena poured the ice tea, and Brietta carried Dorian’s glass to him before she sat down next to her mother. “It was a wonderful day,” she sighed, feeling very much at peace with her world. The words were no sooner spoken, however, when a sudden breeze cut across the patio carrying with it the brisker air of the night, causing the mare to shiver slightly; then it was gone. No one else seemed to notice the chilling sensation, and Brietta shook off the feeling of trepidation that had washed over her.

“You have a way with the foals, Dorian,” Lena noted. “Those three grandchildren of Anna’s look up to you as to a god.”

Brietta giggled at the comparison. “Apollo? Hercules?” she said speculatively, merriment dancing in her eyes. Her mother silenced her with a frown, and even Dorian ignored her teasing.

“I’ve never been around foals since I... well, since I left my last foster home,” he admitted quietly. “I do find that I enjoy their company, which surprises even myself.”

“I’ve never heard you speak of your parents,” Lena could not help but say.

“They didn’t want me,” Dorian said simply, “and I retaliated by causing them as much trouble as I could.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I survived.”

There was silence. “And your parents?”

The question hung in the air while Dorian stared past the lighted fringes to the deepening darkness. Finally, he said in a barely audible voice, “They weren’t so lucky.”

Neither of the mares were willing to intrude after that terminating statement; and as Dorian seemed unwilling to offer more, they sat in silence until Brietta was unable to stand it any longer. “Dorian,” she said softly, “it might be better to talk about it.”

Dorian looked at the mare as if he had forgotten her and Lena’s presence, then put a hoof to his brow as if organizing his thoughts. “I’ve never talked to anyone about it,” he admitted. “Never had anyone to talk to about it when it happened, actually.” He smiled weakly. “I lived with a number of different families as I was growing up; my parents hadn’t really abandoned me, but that was the way the authorities saw it. Mom and Dad thought I was capable of taking care of myself– I’d certainly given them reason to think that was the way I wanted it from the time I was old enough to talk back to them.”

“Surely those families were good to you!” Lena exclaimed.

“Yes, I’m sure they were; but I was in no disposition to become a conformable colt by that time; I wasn’t very cooperative, I’m afraid.” A rueful expression crossed his face as memories from that time of his life came back to haunt him.

“But your parents...” Lena prompted him.

“My parents traveled a lot– would you believe they studied trees?– and they took pictures and wrote books and taught classes on that subject. That’s why I was left alone so much.”

“But couldn’t they have found a place for you in their occupation?” Brietta asked. “It seems you would have loved that life, following along on their quests.”

“I told you they didn’t want me,” Dorian said rather angrily, but he immediately regretted the show of indignation. “I’m sorry; I thought I was over being hostile toward them; don’t let me take it out on you two.”

“It’s our fault,” Lena soothed him. “We were digging too deeply into your past.”

“Yes, Dorian,” Brietta concurred. “Let’s change the subject.”

“No,” the stallion disagreed. “Maybe it’s time I talked about it. I couldn’t have better listeners.” He smiled at the mother and daughter with a slight return to his usual carefree nature and continued his narrative. “My parents were complete unto themselves, and they found that a foal was an exhaustive nuisance. They managed to hire a nanny of sorts to look out for me when I was very young, but I managed to make her life miserable, too. When Tina was gone, I learned quickly that a solitary life did have some advantages; there was no one to complain about anything that I got involved with, whether it was good or bad.”

“You could never have been bad,” countered Brietta.

“I have a police file that destroys that theory, Brie. I wasn’t adverse to taking any chances for any reason, just to see if I could take a risk and succeed. Shop-lifting was too easy, I found, so I had to enlarge my repertoire as I got older. You’d be surprised at what finesse I achieved by the time I was getting ready to graduate from high school.”

He stopped to see what effect his words had on Lena and Brietta, but both mares were sympathetically noncommittal. He found himself wishing they would condemn him on the spot rather than act as if he had said nothing incriminating, yet he also wanted to win their approval. In a clarifying moment, he knew that was very important to him.

Brietta felt his anguish and reached out to pat his hoof. “You told me once that your experience was the reason you went into law, because you wanted to see what it was like from the other side.”

“It took my parents’ death to get to that point,” Dorian conceded.

“How did it happen?”

“They were on one of their foraging expeditions for more material for their latest idea– a textbook of some sort, I believe– in some forlorn stretch of the wilderness when an old lumber wagon they were on had an accident going over an isolated gorge; it seems that a storm had weakened a section of the bridge, and no one was aware of it. There were no survivors.”

“How horrible!” Lena exclaimed, but Brietta only watched Dorian closely, wondering at the lack of emotion in his voice.

“Those who knew them best– and that certainly would not have been me– said that they died as they would have wished, involved with the work that they so loved and in each other’s company.”

“How did you take the news?” wondered Brietta.

“Amazingly, it hit me like a bombshell; I was stoic throughout the funeral, but when I was alone again, I cried my eyes out– and I still don’t understand why,” he said bluntly. “It wasn’t that I was going to miss them; I rarely saw them by this point in my life. Maybe it was all that we had missed...”

“It’s a very sad story,” Lena sniffed.

“Do you feel any better for having told it?” questioned Brietta, noticing the wavering look of Dorian’s eyes.

“In that you and Lena know the truth about me, yes.” He stood up and crossed to Lena, and stooped to kiss her cheek, then did the same with Brietta who took his hoof in hers for a moment– their eyes meeting in a tangible exchange of shared emotion– before releasing him to return to his chair.

By this time, the other stallions had completed their parley and found Lena, Brietta, and Dorian on the patio. “No frog hunting tonight?” Sloan directed at Dorian and Brietta as he took a seat.

“I’m absolutely happy sitting right here,” Brietta admitted. “We’ve got a perfect evening for sharing with family and friends.” Her glance encompassed each of them equally.

“Watch out for this tea,” Dorian warned. “It tends to put one into a dangerously revealing mood.”

“Dangerous?” Sloan raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Dorian has been telling us his life history,” enlightened Brietta, “and has found that two sympathizing females can ask some terribly revealing questions.”

“As he’s never divulged anything but the barest details of his early life, I rather wish I’d have been here for that conversation,” said Sloan.

“You didn’t miss much, as my life wasn’t that inspiring,” countered Dorian.

Lena disagreed. “Your story was compelling, Dorian, and I’m glad you felt free enough to talk to Brietta and me about it.” Then, turning her attention to Sloan, she asked, “And you, Sloan, did you get your legal questions answered by Conrad and Aiden?” Lena was not about to let Dorian’s admissions be bandied about in free discussion.

The conversation slipped into work-related issues until Conrad admitted his need to seek some sleep which broke-up the gathering; Brietta, after a quick goodnight to Sloan and Dorian, lent a hoof to Clarence in carrying the tea items back to the kitchen. It might have been weak of her, but there was no way that Brietta was going to be placed in a position that would necessitate her saying goodnight to both stallions at the door, knowing her own inner turmoil over her feelings for each of them.

She left the two stallions to the care of Aiden and Lena, who escorted them to the front hall; plans were verified for the following day’s jaunt into the wild side of Whitehall Place, and the day came to its peaceful close.

* * *
The morning was marred early by a shower that pelted the leaves in a staccato rhythm that woke Brietta from a deep sleep; one look at the windowpane, and the mare snuggled back into the blankets and immediately fell more deeply into dreamland.

When she awoke several hours later, the sun was shining through the window; the mare stretched and swung her legs out of bed; but remembering that it was Sunday, she sank back against the covers. It was only when she looked at the bedside clock and saw that it was already nine-thirty that she jumped up once more and scurried into her private bathroom to comb the knots from her hair and make herself presentable.

She had just completed her preening when a soft knock sounded on her bedroom door and Lena’s voice came through. “Brietta, sleepyhead, it’s time for you to be up.”

Brietta grinned as she bid her mother to enter. “You’d think I was old enough not to need you to get me out of bed, Mother. I’m sorry I made you come up all those stairs on my account.”

“I wouldn’t have, but your grandfather was getting worried that you wouldn’t make it in time for church; but I see you’re ready. Come down now and have some breakfast.”

“I heard the rain earlier,” she said as the two mares descended the stairs, “and thought that the colts would be disappointed; but by the way the sun is shining now, it looks like their snake expedition will go on as scheduled.”

“Sloan and Dorian will be here right after lunch; I don’t think the colts could wait any longer than that,” she laughed.

Brietta ate a quick breakfast, and the family headed to the church that had been constructed even before the rest of the town had risen up from the virgin countryside. It had been built of native stone and became the fulcrum of the town as Whitehall grew in ever widening circles around it. The morning rain had washed it and freshened the flowers that adorned the perimeter of the stonework. As peaceful as it was beautiful, the church was a beloved landmark.

The growth of the town had required the organization of a second parish that had its own modern structure across town, but Brietta could not find the same comfort and peace in that edifice as she could find in the older but seemingly more sacred building that had formed her religious experience since she was a foal.

It was only upon leaving the vestibule after church that Brietta saw Shayla and her little son, Flynn, walking ahead of her through the scattered groups of ponies visiting on the front lawn. She ran to catch up to them.

“Shayla! Wait up!”

Shayla turned at the sound of her voice being called, and smiled wanly. “Good morning.”

Her friend, nearing her confinement date, looked weary and worn. Brietta could not help feeling concerned. “Shayla, are you okay?”

Tossing her mane, Shayla smiled, that simple act erasing a goodly share of the fatigued appearance. “I’m fine, just tired out.”

“Where’s Derry?” Brietta scanned the surrounding ponies but found no sign of the golden stallion with red hair that was Shayla’s husband.

“He got called out of town yesterday for a business emergency; the plant in Freemont had a computer crash.”

Brietta looked down at Flynn who was grasping his mother’s leg and tugging at it in an effort to get her to move. “Who is helping with this little darling?”

Rolling her eyes, Shayla laughed. “The terror has only me to suppress him. Both sets of grandparents had plans for this weekend, and I wasn’t about to spoil their fun.”

“But Finella says you shouldn’t be chasing after him all the time.”

“Dr. Finella is very pleased with my progress and has allowed me to increase my activity... a little bit.” The amendment came unwillingly.

Frowning, Brietta disagreed. “She probably hasn’t seen how Flynn keeps you on your hooves. When will Derry be home?”

“He promised he’d be back by ten this evening. I’ll be fine, Brietta! But thanks for your concern.”

“I’ll go home with you and run after Flynn while you rest.”

Aiden and Lena had been listening to the conversation; and upon hearing Brietta’s plan, Lena protested. “You can’t miss today’s fun, Brietta! The colts will be disappointed.” Her emphasis on the word colts was an obvious reference to Dorian and Sloan. She smiled at Brietta’s stormy look and ignored it while Aiden chuckled. Turning to Shayla, she extended an invitation. “Why don’t you and Flynn come with us to Whitehall Place; your little colt will enjoy an afternoon with Clarence and Anna’s grandsons, leaving you some time for yourself.”

Shayla readily accepted, but she looked at Brietta curiously, knowing Aiden and Lena well enough to realize when they had the upper hand with their daughter. “What’s up?” she asked her friend as they fell into step with the others, Flynn having readily clasped Conrad’s hoof for the walk.

“Grandfather brought up that old tale about a snake pit near Whitehall Place, and the three colts believed every word. Then, Sloan and Dorian attached themselves to a search for this despicable spot, and...”

“Sloan and Dorian?” Shayla asked, finding that tidbit more interesting than any old snake pit. “Are they both after your affection?” She pinned Brietta with a look that could not be ignored.

“Dorian was at the house because of the foals– he has a way with them– and Sloan was there on business; so don’t get any ideas,” Brietta said rather testily.

Chuckling softly, Shayla responded honestly. “I thought Dorian was taken with you that first time he met you, but I didn’t think Sloan would give him a chance to win your hoof.”

“Well, for your information, if this is a contest, Dorian is way in the lead!”

Shayla gave her friend a sideways glance and wisely decided to drop the subject.

* * *
Very grateful for Shayla’s presence, Brietta was able to absent herself from the afternoon’s outing on the pretense that she owed it to Shayla to keep her company as they so seldom got a chance to talk, which was true enough. The stallions, aware of Shayla’s need to confine her activities, could not press her to accompany the party; so the all-male enterprise had to forego exerting any pressure on Brietta to accompany them.

Todd, Chad, and Kent accepted Flynn into their midst so that it would have been hard for a stranger to tell that they were not all of the same family; Conrad and Aiden appeared to be as excited as the foals to shed their normal bookish activities; Clarence, decked out in an old fedora, looked quite dashing; and Sloan and Dorian assumed the role of cavalier companions for both young and old. Brietta almost felt a twinge of regret as the colts and stallions left the house as they all looked so happy and carefree.

A peaceful quiet settled over the house after the male voices had faded into the distance, and Lena left Shayla and Brietta to enjoy a coze, the two mares retreating to Brietta’s bedroom as if they were still fillies in high school with secrets to share and plans to discuss. Curled up in the comfortable chairs in the conversational nook that graced a windowed corner of the room and with music playing in the background, the two could well have been teenagers again.

“This music reminds me,” Shayla said, “that Egan and Kelli are having a dance at the high school auditorium to celebrate their anniversary. Did you see the open invitation in the paper?”

“No, I didn’t. They married right out of high school, so this must be their... seventh anniversary.”

“Kelli says that Egan doesn’t remember the date unless she schedules some sort of soiree; last year it was a picnic at the park, the year before a sit-down dinner at their home.”

“So what kind of dance is it to be? I seem to remember Egan steering clear of ballroom dancing.”

“It should be fun; a disc jockey will be playing only songs that were popular while we were in school.”

“Ah, the songs they fell in love by!” Brietta grinned.

“You’ll attend, won’t you? It’s next Saturday.”

“It sounds like the perfect opportunity to touch base with some of the ponies I haven’t seen since our high school days,” Brietta considered. “And I don’t have any other plans.”

The two mares fell into a companionable silence as the summer breeze wafted into the house from the open window, teasing the curtains and bringing with it the smell of lavender and pine. Shayla rested her head against the back of the chair, enjoying the quiet while her son was busily occupied and well chaperoned.

“This is so nice,” she said, looking a little guilty. “As much as I love Flynn, I’ve been having a difficult time keeping up with him as of late. And with Derry out of town, even if it is just for the day, it makes it all the harder.”

“Well, Flynn will be having the time of his life; and, hopefully, he’ll have worn off some of his energy with this afternoon’s pursuits.”

“My afternoon will be pure heaven if I can sit right here,” Shayla sighed.

“There’s no reason that you can’t. Is there anything I can get you?”

“Would a glass of water be asking too much?”

“No, it wouldn’t. I could even get you a glass of juice... or milk... or...”

“Water will be fine,” interrupted Shayla, laughing. “Really, Brietta, you’ll spoil me; and then what will I do when I get back home and have to fend for myself again?”

“Derry will be home by then, and you have to promise me that you’ll let him do your running for you.”

“Now you sound like my mother.”

“She’s always been a sensible mare,” Brietta countered. Returning with the water, she advised her friend, “Just relax now, and take a nap if you can.”

“Great company I’ll be then; you’ll wish you’d gone with the guys. I can just imagine Sloan and Dorian competing with one another to find you the biggest snake.”

“If you’re lucky, Flynn will bring you back a baby snake to keep for a pet,” retorted Brietta.

“Don’t even say that,” Shayla shivered. “I don’t like snakes any better than you do.”

“Then let’s talk about happier things. Have you seen the new window display at GewGaws? I couldn’t believe some of the colors they’re flaunting.”

“I know what you mean! Did you notice that hideous shade of lime green?”

“Oh, gross! And then there was that outrageous orange. It clashed with everything.”

More of the same followed, and it was some time before the two mares had thoroughly picked apart the new line at Whitehall’s most progressive apparel shop. What a pleasant way to spend the afternoon!
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