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My Little Pony Monthly Issue 79 (October 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 79
October 2003
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Index

1. Contest!
2. Survey!
3. Dark Army Rising (by Clever Clover)
4. Crossing the Rubicon (by Sugarberry)
5. The Story in Which Dietrich and Caprice are Rescued, and Thomas Proves his Worth (by Tabby)
6. Silent Are the Bells (by Sugarberry)
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Contest!

I was pleased to see a number of new participants enter this contest!! But remember, no one will be penalized for entering multiple contests. So keep on entering!!!

*garej* (garej@mylittlepony.fsnet.co.uk)
Baby Dibbles (Amsofct@aol.com)
BJ (nazgrrl@hotmail.com)
C. A. Loewen (cloewen@superpa.net)
Chandra Forshey (ChandraMic@aol.com)
Ellen (glo-wirm@yahoo.com)
FRAGGLEM@peoplepc.com
Helen (hdkiker@shentel.net)
Jaye (eightiestoyboy@yahoo.ca)
Nikki (suni-210@hotmail.com)
Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net)
Violet Star Shine (violet_star_shine@yahoo.com)

What clever collectors we have subscribed to MLP Monthly! I was hoping to catch someone on last month’s question, but... no luck! Everyone knew that Peachy was NOT one of the original six ponies, despite similarity in pose and symbol style. Peachy was, of course, the pony that came with the Pretty Parlor play-set.

And now, EXCITING NEWS concerning October’s contest! All contestants will receive a prize graphic as usual, but one lucky randomly drawn winner will receive a REAL PHYSICAL PRIZE! Wow! This month, for female MLP fans, we are offering an AVON Nailwear nail enamel Cherries Jubilee absolutely adores! It’s called, of course, Cherry Jubilee, and it’s a lovely deep, rich red color, perfect for autumn.

More on this nail enamel: “Super-Strong Nailwear Nail Enamel, now formulated with flexi-shield technology, wears better than before. This breakthrough formula “bends” with the nails to help resist cracks, breaks, and chips. Beautiful color also provides a shimmer finish. Contains keravite, AVON’s exclusive nourishing complex, with vitamin E, calcium, and panthenol. Free of formaldehyde and formulated without toluene.”

OOPS!!! Sorry for the commercial. It’s just that I’m selling AVON and mark products now to make some money for college next fall; go to http://members.aol.com/Sugrbery/Nova.htm if interested in learning more about those products.

And don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten you guys out there! If one of you should win, we have a lovely container of AVON Wild Country body talc for you. The longhorn steer head on the packaging could be construed to look sort of pony-like if you stretch your imagination. Wow!

Now, ON TO THE QUESTION! Answer correctly and you will have a chance to win one of our two great prizes this month!

In the Escape from Catrina special, who were Catrina’s original slaves?

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!

Yes!! The survey section is still going!! I think this must be a record!! You told us how selective you were in collecting ponies...

Jaye (eightiestoyboy@yahoo.ca) says...
The answer is yes and no. I'll buy pretty much any pony I see. If they are in nice shape, they get added to the collection proper; others are set aside for future custom work, trading, etc.
However, there are several little subsets of ponies I am more selective about. For a long time it was my mission to get all the adult ponies featured in the cartoon series (for the record, I'm missing a decent Lickety-Split, and I think that's all.)
Also, there are some ponies I like more than others. For example, I like pretty much all the TAF ponies, and don't care much for the Dance n' Twirl ponies, so I'm more likely to buy the ones I like. But when all is said and done, eventually I want to get them all. :-)

*garej* (garej@mylittlepony.fsnet.co.uk) says...
I used to be, but now I focus on all variants of Peachy (and as many Peachys as I can get - I have 28 Peachys and 21 of them are the standard Hong Kong version) and yellow ponies! I love Peachy! I even have an handmade "I love Peachy" badge :)

Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net) says...
I do want them all, but since that's kinda hard to do all at once, I start with the ones I want most and work my way through them. I'm still looking for Scribbles and Dabbles and SS Angel, amongst others *hint hint to anyone out there!* ;)

But remember, we can’t keep it going without your support. Don’t be shy, everyone can share his or her thoughts!

Would you like to see MLP Monthly start including want/sale/trade ads in the newsletter?

The URL is:

http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm
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Dark Army Rising
by Clever Clover (Swordrat@aol.com)

Nightshade paced the study of the castle of the Dark Isle while her brother, Hemlock, poured over an ancient tome. “This is so frustrating, brother! Our plans are flawless and yet our enemies overcome us by sheer weight of numbers!”

“If you would not keep interrupting me, then maybe I could discover the secret to our eventual success.”

“It’s not my interruptions that are the problem, I think. It’s that little filly Enchantment that will be your downfall. I thought you’d said you had that under control.”

“I thought I had. But…”

“But what?”

Hemlock waved her away with his hoof. “Leave me, Nightshade. I have important work to do.”

Nightshade drew her sword and leveled it at Hemlock’s face. “Who are you?” she demanded of her brother.

“Sister, have you forgotten me?”

Nightshade shook her head. “When you dismissed me you called me by name. You never call me by name; but on the Isle you did it also, when Enchantment had incapacitated you. One time I am willing to overlook, particularly considering the stress you were under at the time. But now I know you are not who you appear to be.”

Hemlock grinned. “Very good. I am called Zotikos, of Atlantis.”

“Atlantis! You will leave my brother at once, vile ghost!”

“I will leave him, but not until you have secured an adequate new host for me. Even Jack O Lantern will do. He was easier to control than Hemlock has been.”

“What! I though we were through with him! And even if we weren’t, he’s been moved to the Sea Patrol headquarters on Kuramitsu Island. Even I would have trouble getting into that fortress.”

“I have faith in your abilities, which is why I would ask you to also bring out as many of the other prisoners as you can.”

“You want me to stage a jailbreak of that magnitude? You are ambitious.”

“Yes, and I have had centuries to dream of my ambitions of conquest, but I am growing impatient. The time has come to act, before our enemies can become even more numerous. Now, are you going to do as I ask, or is your brother going to join me on the other side?”

Nightshade sheathed her sword. “Very well, Zotikos. But as soon as I return, you will release my brother; or I will see to it that you never haunt another soul.” And then she disappeared into the shadows.

* * *
Pony Sea Patrol cruiser Yagamo cut through the waves toward Kuramitsu Island. It glided between the massive guard towers into the harbor. As it pulled up to the dock, a lone pony stood waiting, a large brown stallion with golden mane and tail. He wore a more ornate sash than Key or Belle Star wore, for he was the Grand Admiral of the Pony Sea Patrol, supreme commander of the largest fleet in Ponyland, and Belle Star’s grandfather.

The dock Bushwoolies rushed to tie off the Yagamo. When the gangplank was lowered, two ponies debarked, Key and Belle Star. At the bottom of the plank they both stood at attention and saluted the admiral. A broad grin crossed his face.

“Belle Star, there’s no need for that. For the next week you are a granddaughter visiting her grandfather, not an officer of the Pony Sea Patrol. And considering the casual nature of this event, I suppose you can be excused from formality as well, Key.”

Key stood at ease. “Thank you, Admiral.”

But Belle Star held her salute. Seeing this, the admiral returned it. Belle Star lowered her hoof and threw her forelegs around her grandfather. “Oh, Grandpa! I’m so happy to see you!”

“And I’m glad to see you, too, Belle Star. It’s been too long for a grandfather to not see his granddaughter. Come on, let’s get caught up over some tea. Officer Key, you are dismissed. Thank you for bringing Belle Star here.”

“Thank you, sir. It was no problem. See you next week, Belle Star.”

“Uh-huh. See you later, Key!”

While Key went about preparing her ship for the return trip to Port Scurvy, Belle Star and her grandfather strolled across the dockyards toward the town of Kuramitsu, a fortress city surrounded by massive walls, and at its heart was the imposing citadel where the most feared criminals in the world were imprisoned. Despite its martial design, the city was quite pleasant, with wide streets, numerous parks and lawns, and a wide array of shops and restaurants.

“Belle Star, I know you don’t want any special treatment for being my granddaughter, but you are not even on active duty. There is no need to salute.”

“I know, but…oh oh! There’s my favorite noodle stand! Can we stop for noodles, Grandpa?”

“Of course.”

They sat down at the counter and ordered their noodles, which arrived shortly. Grandfather blew on his noodles to cool them. “So, Belle Star, this prince you’re always writing about, Clever Clover; the two of you are very close.”

Belle Star nodded as she slurped her hot noodles.

“Is he more than just a friend?”

Belle Star gasped in pain, grabbed a glass of water, and drank it to cool her mouth. Once she regained her composure, she answered her grandfather’s question. “Uh-huh. He is my very best friend! Well, him and Key…and Minoko, and Morning Glory, and Enchantment, and Foxglove…”

Grandfather chuckled. “You’re very fortunate to have so many best friends. I’m glad that you’re getting along so well. I wish your mother could be here to see you now.”

Belle Star slurped some more noodles. “Where is Mom, anyway?”

“She’s leading the research team at Isla Soja. It seems the fortress was not created by Jack O Lantern, but by some ancient civilization. She believes it could have been an outpost of Atlantis, possibly a refuge for those fleeing its destruction.”

“Oooh. Clever Clover was telling me about Atlantis. He said they were mean and evil and they enslaved his people, but now he’s friends with their queen.”

“Yes, times can change. Remember the stories of the Sea Clan? They were enemies of Atlantis, but when it began to sink they came to the aid of the Atlanteans and took them to safety.”

“Oh yeah! Clever Clover said something about the Sea Clan, too. Oh! But I can’t remember.”

“That’s all right. You’re not here for a history lesson, you’re here to spend quality time with your grandfather.”

They finished their noodles and walked across town to the admiral’s townhouse. “If you’d like to rest up after your trip, your room is just about the way you left it. I did have the maid tidy up a bit.”

Belle Star yawned. “Thank you, Grandpa. I think I will take a nap.” She went upstairs to her old room and flopped down on the bed. In a moment she was asleep.

* * *
The next morning Belle Star awoke with a stretch and a yawn. She sat on the edge of her bed and looked around the room. “Hm, I wonder where all my stuff is?” She walked over to the dresser, opened a drawer, and started tossing items onto the bed. A dark red ribbon caught her eye. “Oh! This used to be my favorite ribbon!” She tied the ribbon in her tail in a big bow. As she admired it in the mirror she noticed, hanging around her neck, the arrowhead pendant that Clever Clover had made for her shortly after they had met. “I miss Clever Clover. I wish he could have come along. He and Grandpa would probably get along great.” Her stomach growled. “I need to get some breakfast.”

She went downstairs to the kitchen. On the table, she found a note from her grandfather.

Granddaughter,

I have some business to take care of at the Citadel. Meet me at my office and we can go out for lunch…or maybe supper. See you later.

Love,

Grandpa
* * *
A group of five of prisoners, four ponies and a lioness, were being processed by Draco, an officer Belle Star had worked with when she had been assigned to Zodiac Island. One of the prisoners, a pony with bright red mane and tail, protested loudly. “We are not pirates! We’re OUTLAWS! Come on, can’t you guys back me up on this?”

Another prisoner, a pale pony with midnight blue mane and tail, shrugged. “I’m not really even with them. I was just a passenger.”

“How can you say that, Twilight?”

The youngest prisoner spoke up next. “I don’t think your yelling is helping matters any, Starwind. Maybe you should just calm down and I’m sure everything will get worked out in the end.”

“You too, Hawk? My entire crew is turning on me!”

The lioness huffed. “If I was the captain, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

The last pony put her hoof on Starwind’s shoulder. “I’m not turning on you.”

“Thanks, Sextant.”

Belle Star, distracted by the commotion, tripped over a snow-white Bushwoolie. “Oh! I’m so sorry…Yuki! I haven’t seen you in years!”

“Belle Belle!” cried the Bushwoolie. “You’re back!”

Draco turned his attention to Belle Star and Yuki. “Oh, great. You are back. Well, I don’t care who your grandfather is; I am not covering for you anymore.”

“Oh, hi Draco! I’m glad to see you again, too! Hey Yuki, I’m having lunch with Grandpa later in the cafeteria; would you like to join us?”

“Yeah yeah, sure!”

“Good! See you there. Good-bye Draco!” Belle Star pranced off toward her grandfather’s office.

“Good riddance,” Draco mumbled under his breath.

* * *
Grandfather was examining a file when Belle Star arrived at his office. “Good morning, Grandpa!”

“Ah, good morning, Belle Star. I’m sorry I had to come in to work today; Draco brought in a shipload of suspected pirates who may be responsible for a major crime wave recently. But after reviewing the crime scene reports, I’m beginning to have my doubts.”

“I saw them downstairs. I don’t think they’re pirates.”

“Oh, why do you say that?”

“Well, the only pirate I know is Minoko, and they were nothing like her. Well, the red haired one does yell a lot, but Minoko’s scary when she yells; he’s just silly.”

“Yes, he is rather silly, the way he keeps insisting that he is an outlaw instead of a pirate, as if one is any better than the other. But we don’t have any criminal files on any of them. They’re probably just some hippies out for a pleasure cruse. I’m inclined to believe their story; they were just investigating a derelict ship which the real pirates had just plundered and set adrift. Now, are you ready for lunch?”

“Uh-huh. And I invited Yuki to join us. I hope that’s okay.”

“Of course.”

They went to the cafeteria and were joined by Yuki, who had been the chief Bushwoolie on Belle Star’s ship back before it had sunk. Luckily all hands escaped without harm because the ship sank in shallow water. The cause of the sinking couldn’t be determined, but Belle Star volunteered to take a leave of absence from the Pony Sea Patrol after that, and ended up doing archaeology in Friendship Gardens.

After lunch, Grandfather had Starwind and company released; then he and Belle Star returned to their vacation.

* * *
After several uneventful days, Starwind and company showed up at the sea gate, towing a pirate ship. Though they denied being bounty hunters, they did accept payment for apprehending the bandits, claiming they had only done it to prove their innocence. But with the pirates in custody, Grandfather had to return to the office while the prisoners were processed. Belle Star came to have lunch with him again, but managed to get lost on the way to the cafeteria. She wandered the halls of the Citadel, searching for the cafeteria or anyone to ask directions. Eventually she bumped into another pony, literally. As she helped the pony up, she asked, “Pardon me, but do you know how to get to the cafeteria from here?”

The eyes of the dark pony she had bumped into went wide. “You!” Before she knew what was happening, Belle Star found herself facing Nightshade’s blade. The dark swordpony lunged at Belle Star, who managed to dodge it despite her confusion.

“I only want to get to the cafeteria! Why are you attacking me?”

“You fool! Don’t you know who I am?!”

Belle Star paused and looked Nightshade in the eyes. “Oh! It’s you! What are you doing here, villain?” Belle Star reached for her sword, but unfortunately she hadn’t worn it today. She backed cautiously away from Nightshade.

Nightshade grinned evilly. “Well, well, well. It seems your luck has finally run out.”

Belle Star suddenly found her retreat cut off. Whatever she had run into, it was as solid as a brick wall, but it had a furry coat. She sensed something looming over her and craned her neck to look behind her and found a giant stallion glaring down at her. He snarled, baring lupin denture. Belle Star leapt aside as he slammed his massive hoof down where she had been standing, cracking the floor stones and rattling the entire hallway. The shock from the impact knocked Belle Star off balance; and as she reeled, Nightshade’s blade narrowly missed her.

Regaining her footing, Belle Star dashed off down a side passage. “After her!” bellowed Nightshade. The massive stallion, who was wearing the hide of a wolf about his shoulders, pulled himself up to his full height, his ears brushing the ceiling, and glared down at Nightshade. She glared back. “Are you forgetting who got you out of your cell? Now go!”

The wolf-stallion growled and took off after Belle Star with surprising swiftness, considering his size. Nightshade then turned to a quartet of shadowy figures in the hallway behind her. “You, too! I don’t want her getting in my way again! Except for you, Jack O Lantern. You stay close to me. I need you to get my brother back.”

Two of the figures disappeared into the darkness. Jack O Lantern stepped into the light. “I have no idea what you are talking about; but I’m in no position to argue, for the time being anyway.”

“And what about you?” Nightshade pointed her sword at the remaining figure.

“I am not cut out for such pursuits. Besides, I have more important things to take care of, namely reclaiming what is rightfully mine.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The Sea Patrol took something of mine; they have it locked away somewhere in this fortress. I need to get it back!”

“I came here to get as many of you out of here as I could. I’m not going to waste any time searching the entire fortress for whatever it is you think is so important.”

“Ah, but we don’t need to search. I can sense it. Now that I am out of my cell, I know exactly where it is!”

Jack O Lantern nodded. “It might be a good idea to humor him. Only the most feared criminals are held here. If he feels this item of his is that important, there must be a good reason. And if he can lead us to it, it shouldn’t be too much trouble. Besides, with those three chasing that officer, I doubt anyone will notice the three of us.”

“Very well. Lead the way.”

* * *
Meanwhile, Belle Star tried frantically to escape the giant wolf-stallion, but it seemed every hallway simply led to another, and they all looked the same. As far as she knew, she had been running around in circles ever since the chase began. Then, as she turned yet another corner, Belle Star found herself confronted by yet another mysterious pony. He was no larger that she, red with a black mane and tail in long braids. He struck a pose, standing on one hind hoof with his forelegs crossed in front of him. “Kuroi-juuji!” he cried out and shot forward, his crossed forelegs catching Belle Star and throwing her against the wall.

Belle Star shook her head and stood up an wobbly knees. “I am impressed,” said the red pony. “Very few can survive a direct hit from my ‘Kuroi-juuji’ technique. But you will not survive a second hit.” Belle Star turned to run but found her escape blocked by the wolf-stallion. The red pony struck his pose and launched again. But this time Belle Star was ready for him. She countered with a roundhouse kick that sent him crashing into the wall. The wolf-stallion laughed and raised his mighty hoof. Belle Star didn’t have time to get out of the way. The hoof fell and met a massive curved sword.

“Are you all right, granddaughter?”

Belle Star looked up at her grandfather, who had blocked the wolf-stallion’s attack. “Oh, thank you, Grandpa!” She scrambled away from the wolf-stallion and her grandfather withdrew his sword, letting the steel-clad hoof crash to the ground.

The red pony climbed from the hole he had knocked in the wall. “It seems that I have underestimated you. I shall have to resort to more drastic techniques.” He struck another pose and began to chant.

“Granddaughter, go! I’ll deal with these two!”

“But Grandpa…”

“That is an order, Belle Star! Don’t worry about me; reenforcements are on their way.”

Belle Star hesitantly turned and retreated down the hallway. Before long she encountered the reenforcements led by Draco.

“I should have known you’d be involved in this,” said Draco. “Where is the admiral?”

Belle Star pointed down the hall. “He’s down there fighting two mean ponies! He needs your help! Please hurry!”

“Come on, men!” Draco led the Sea Patrol ponies into the fray.

At the end of the line was Yuki the Bushwoolie, who carried a large white pom-pom. “Belle Belle! Here!” He tossed the pom-pom to Belle Star. She caught it between her forehooves and it transformed into a transparent red cube.

Belle Star gazed in confusion at the strange device in her hooves. “What the…oh! I remember! She twisted and rotated the cube until a book appeared out of thin air in front of her. “No, that’s not what I want.” She continued to manipulate the cube, conjuring up all manner of items, pots and pans, clothing, tools, and toys, before finally materializing her sash and sword. “That’s it! Come on Yuki, let’s go help Grandpa!”

By the time Belle Star and Yuki arrived at the scene of the fight, it was all over. The hallway was in ruins, as well as several adjacent rooms. Grandfather was winded, but unhurt. The villains were nowhere to be seen. “Oh! Grandfather, you’re all right!”

“Yes, Belle Star, but those two got away. We’ll have to split up to find them. Draco, divide your troops into two parties. Belle Star, you and Yuki will come with me.”

Draco stepped forward. “With all due respect, Admiral, wouldn’t it be best to leave her out of this? I mean, as far as we know, she’s responsible for letting the prisoners out, though I’m sure she didn’t mean to.”

“It wasn’t me! It was Nightshade! I saw her. She sent those two after me.”

“Nightshade? Draco, send two ponies to check on Jack O Lantern and see how many other prisoners have been released. The rest of us will proceed with the search. Now let’s go!”

* * *
The gray stallion led Nightshade and Jack O Lantern into the depths of the Citadel. The vault where he led them was heavily guarded, but Nightshade was able to slip past the defenders with ease. She quickly located the ornately carved chest the stallion had described to her. It didn’t look all that impressive to her, just a dusty old box. But the stallion insisted that it was important and Jack O Lantern thought it was worth the trouble of recovering. With the box in her possession, she slipped out of the vault to rejoin Jack O Lantern and the gray stallion.

“Did you get it? Give it to me!” The old stallion lunged for the box as soon as Nightshade arrived.

“Not so fast, old timer. What is so important about this box?”

“Give it to me!”

“Just give him the box,” advised Jack O Lantern. “We can discuss the box after we get out of here.”

“Very well.” Nightshade tossed the box to the old stallion who clenched it tightly. The three of them then made their way to the pre-arranged rendezvous point to meet the three who had been sent in pursuit of Belle Star. They found the wolf-stallion and the red pony waiting for them.

“Where is the other one?” asked Nightshade.

The red pony shrugged. “I don’t know. She didn’t show up for the fight.”

“Did the two of you finish off that Sea Patrol pony?”

“No.”

“No? Then what are you doing standing around here?”

“Before we could finish her off, our fight attracted some attention. Even the two of us couldn’t hold off the entire garrison of Kuramitsu Citadel.”

“Well, if the alarm has been raised, we’d better get out of here.”

Just then a sea-green pony stepped onto the scene. “You’re not leaving without me, are you?”

“You! Why didn’t you help the others? The three of you together could have gotten rid of that pony once and for all!”

“That’s not my style. Not that I’m not grateful for the chance to get out of here, but I’m not into violence.”

Nightshade shook her head. “Very well. Let’s just get out of here.”

* * *
The ponies of the Sea Patrol searched the Citadel from top to bottom and found no sign of Nightshade or the escapees. Draco reported his findings to the Admiral. “Besides Jack O Lantern, four prisoners were released. Also, one item is missing from the vault. Here are the relevant files.” He set a stack of papers on the Admiral’s desk.

The Admiral flipped through the papers. “Hm. Thank you, Draco. Send in Belle Star on your way out.”

Draco left and a moment later, Belle Star entered. “Grandpa…”

“Belle Star, I have a favor to ask of you.”

* * *
“What are we doing here?” complained the red pony at the sight of Hemlock’s study.

Jack O Lantern looked about in disgust. “He has really let this place go. I’ll have to have a word with that former apprentice of mine.”

“Oh really, old master? Remember that if it weren’t for me, you’d still be rotting away in prison.” All heads turned to face Hemlock. “But then, I was never your apprentice. He is simply a convenient host.”

“Host? What are you talking about?”

“I am Zotikos, of Atlantis. You were my host too, for a while. But I never had to exert full control over you. Our goals, for the time, were the same. I simply provided a simple nudge in the right direction from time to time. But now that I have introduced myself, why don’t the rest of you?”

The red pony bowed. “I am called Akujitsu.”

“I have been called many things,” said the wolf-stallion. “You can call me Wolfgang.”

The sea-green lady pony was the next to introduce herself. “I am Lady Sea-Snake.”

Finally, the gray stallion, still clenching his box, spoke up. “My name is Darius.”

Hemlock/Zotikos nodded. “Akujitsu, Wolfgang, your talents will be most useful. As for the other two, I do not think I will be in need of your services. Really, Nightshade, I expected better of you. There were twenty seven inmates in Kuramitsu Citadel and you bring me five, two of which were hardly worth the effort.”

Lady Sea-Snake stepped forward. “Lord Zotikos, I beg of you, give me a chance to prove myself.”

“You seem awfully eager to serve,” said Akujitsu. “I have no interest in serving anyone. Zotikos, I am afraid I must decline your offer.”

“I have made no offer. I have given you your freedom; in exchange you will serve me. You have no choice. But once I have conquered the world, you will be rewarded, with power and dominion.”

“I like the sound of that,” said Wolfgang. “Power and dominion. Ya, I like the sound of that.”

“What about you, Darius?” asked Jack O Lantern.

The gray old pony shrugged. “I have no preference.”

“I suppose it cannot hurt to serve you for the time being,” said Akujitsu. “But when it no longer serves my purpose, I will take my leave.”

Hemlock turned to his sister. “What do you have to say on the matter, dear sister?”

“Don’t call me that, Zotikos. But since I went to the trouble of bringing Darius and Sea-Snake, it seems a shame to waste whatever talents they might have.”

“Very well then. Lady Sea-Snake, Darius, step forward. One of you will be my new host. The other will have the honor of serving me.”

Lady Sea-Snake bowed. “I am but a humble servant, not worthy to be your host. Leave me free and I will serve you well as I am.”

Darius was silent. Hemlock stepped forward and grabbed Darius’ head and looked into his eyes. A moment later Hemlock faltered and almost fell over. Nightshade rushed to his side. “Brother! Are you alright?”

“Sister,” Hemlock replied weakly. “Where am I?”

“Come, brother, you need to rest.” Nightshade led her brother away.

Jack O Lantern turned to Darius. “So, Darius, or is it Zotikos? Strange, I’ve studied Atlantean history and I never heard of any Zotikos.”

The gray stallion grinned. “Either will do. Darius or Zotikos, we have found this partnership to be more beneficial that either of us had imagined. And I don’t suppose you would have heard of Zotikos; I was but a petty governor of a lowly subject people of the Empire. But I recognized in those people, in the Night Clan, the power that I would need to make myself emperor! I secreted them away to this Dark Isle so that I could work my schemes in secrecy, but before my plan could be recognized the Empire fell. Though I fought to hold the hand of time, I eventually passed away, but my ambition lived on, as did my spirit. I spent the centuries gathering the pieces that would eventually bring me the power that I have always longed for. That is when I met you, Jack O Lantern, and I led you to the Night Clan and I made you my host. Then I moved to conquer the Isle ponies and unite the seven clans under my rule. And then, in an ironic twist of fate, my enemy, Clever Clover, found the key and re-opened the gates of Atlantis to me. And together we will storm those gates! The Empire, the world, will finally be mine! But our first step will be the conquest of the Isle. Then, with the Power of the Regents, we will be unstoppable.”

Jack O Lantern shook his head. “Atlantis is your goal? Then I don’t see what is in this for me anymore.”

“My dear Jack O Lantern, once I rule Atlantis, I will need a governor to rule the Isle. If you join my cause, that position can be yours. Otherwise…”

“Very well. We are allies, for the time being.”

* * *
Key’s Yagamo returned to Kuramitsu Island to pick up Belle Star. As she pulled into the dock, Key noticed a brand new cruiser docked in the next berth. Belle Star stood on the dock wearing her sash and sword. She carried a stack of files. “Hello Belle Star. How was your vacation?”

Belle Star seemed less cheerful than usual. She greeted her old friend with a salute. Key returned the salute. “What’s going on?”

Belle Star pulled a file from the stack and handed it to Key, and the rest of her files fell to the planks of the dock. “Oh! Why does that always happen to me?”

While Belle Star gathered the fallen files, Key looked through her file. “You’ve been returned to active duty? That would explain the new ship. And a jailbreak? That’s bad news. WHAT! A full pardon!? I know Minoko has made some progress, but a full pardon?”

Belle Star had finished regathering the files. “Uh-huh. King Oak put in a good word for her. And I’ve been assigned to be Clever Clover’s bodyguard!”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Crossing the Rubicon
by Sugarberry (Sugarberry@NematodeMail.com)

The orange stallion had second thoughts about visiting Native Dreams on this, the grand opening day for the shop that was now affiliated with his casino by proximity and financial support, when he stood in the doorway and realized just how much interest had been generated in the store through the vigorous advertising campaign he had sponsored. With barely room to walk, the stallion found it difficult to even move deeper into the shop, the displays a virtual cornucopia of items crafted by Native Ponies.

Before Wigwam could quietly turn around and slip away to await a more propitious time to extend his personal congratulations to the shop’s proprietor, Dreamcatcher, and her sister and manager, Bittersweet, the latter mare caught sight of him and squealed over the chatter of the customers, “Wigwam! Welcome to Native Dreams!”

With all heads in the shop swiveling to observe him, Wigwam would have gratefully dropped through the floor in that instant; but, in deference to Bittersweet, he smiled warmly and waited while the mocha unicorn made her way to him. Dodging the last several customers that stood between the two of them, Bittersweet finally found herself in front of the stallion; and, with a broad grin, she hugged him exuberantly.

“Wigwam, how can we ever thank you enough?”

“Keep up your rent payments on time,” drawled Wigwam.

Bittersweet ignored the comment. “You’ve made our dream a reality; and the flowers you sent are gorgeous,” she beamed.

“May I add my thanks to those of my sister?” queried Dreamcatcher, who had also taken advantage of Wigwam’s arrival to convey her appreciation to the stallion who had supported her desire to expand her business from a mall kiosk to a full-blown store, even though it had been Bittersweet’s constant harping that had swung the stallion over to the idea.

Looking to the pale orange unicorn, Wigwam smiled. He and Dreamcatcher had not always been on the best of terms, but any differences had been put behind them in this effort to orchestrate a congenial business environment for the diffusion of all things Native Pony. Wigwam was pleased that their animosity had been overcome.

“Dreamcatcher, I wish you great success... and not only because of the investment I’ve put into this place. Native Ponies couldn’t have better representatives than you and Bittersweet to put their skills and achievements before the rest of Ponyland.”

“Thank you, Wigwam; we’ll do out best to live up to those noble expectations,” Dreamcatcher smiled, “... which means that at least one of us better meet our customers’ demands.” She sent a speaking glance at her sister before turning to help Princess Dawn with a purchase.

“Are you looking for anything special?” Bittersweet asked of Wigwam, incorporating her most efficient manner to make it appear that her time was being well spent on business affairs.

“Nice try, Bittersweet, but I think I’ll wait and do my shopping when the circus-like atmosphere has died down a bit.” The stallion tweaked her ear. “Go help a serious customer.”

* * *
It was evening before Sugarberry arrived at Native Dreams to check out the new store. To allow Dreamcatcher to put all her energy into the grand opening, Sugarberry had taken the seventeen-month old Tamarack under her care for the day and was only now returning him to his parents’ custody. Accompanying her and Tamarack were Vanguard and Banderol, of course; but they had stopped at Tabby’s mansion to include her and Thomas and Faline as well, making the outing a good opportunity for Sugarberry and Tabby to get caught up on local gossip and family happenings. The mares were busily doing just that as Faline and Tamarack pranced from them to the stallions behind, Vanguard carrying the already dozing Banderol.

“I hear you gained a new employee from your trip to New Pony,” Vanguard said, glancing at Thomas.

“Don’t ask me how that happened,” grinned Thomas, “but Tabby took a liking to Marina, and Marina was in need of a new direction in her career. Before I knew what was happening, she was hired on at the clinic.”

“Tabby told Sugarberry that she thoroughly enjoyed meeting some of the ponies who helped you out in your own career.”

“Steuben and Spindrift were a big help to me when I was in vet school; we’d been out of touch for years, but it didn’t take long to get back on congenial terms. I’m sure you must have had some close associations when you were in school as well.”

“Some were not worth continuing,” stated Vanguard, “although it was Decagon, my math teacher, whose influence propelled me into my teaching experience in Vulcanopolis.”

As the group was nearing Native Dreams, the conversation shifted to general impressions of the exterior of the store which was now brightly lighted to greet any ponies who had not yet experienced the Native Pony artistry now available at this exclusive establishment. The design of the building mimicked the construction of the casino itself, having the stylized shape of a tipi; large torch-like luminaries directed visitors to the front entrance which was still admitting curious ponies.

Once inside Native Dreams, Tamarack propelled himself straight for his mother, hugging her right foreleg as if he had been out of her company for ages. Dreamcatcher, helping one of the late customers, gave her son a quick hug and kiss before sending him to join his father who was hanging out near the refreshment table that had tempted many a pony in the course of the day. After commenting appropriately on the apparent success of the grand opening, Vanguard, Banderol, and Thomas joined Fetish and Tamarack, leaving Sugarberry, Tabby, and Faline to peruse the wide variety of items on display and share highlights of the day with the nearly exhausted– but proud– entrepreneurs.

Tabby and Sugarberry were once again joined by their spouses when they had made their selections, becoming the last customers of the day as closing time had already passed and Dreamcatcher was now rounding up the final sales. Bittersweet continued to chatter constantly about the highlights of this important opening.

“... and you could have knocked me over with a feather when Queen Serena herself came through the doorway; she seemed very impressed by everything we had to offer and made a substantial purchase. Everyone who was here at the time was quick to follow her lead. And the stallion who has been hired as director of the new art center came in and simply praised the paintings by Rozene; he had us set back this one...” She reached behind the counter to reveal a vibrant landscape. “...that he’ll pick up Wednesday. He’ll be in his apartment by then.”

“Who is this guy?” asked Tabby. She had, after all, promised Marina there would be plenty of eligible stallions in Dream Valley. She might as well start finding them so Marina would have a good selection– and also so she would stop enthusing over Thomas quite so much!

“He had his own art gallery in Golden City, but he was looking for a change and liked what he saw of Dream Valley. His name’s Rubicon, and he’s quite handsome.” Bittersweet winked at Tabby and Sugarberry. “He has the most ravishing blue-green eyes and he’s very attentive.”

“And has Teepee met this paragon?” asked an amused Sugarberry.

“Actually, no,” said Bittersweet with a grin. “But he has nothing to fear; Rubicon is too smooth, if you know what I mean.”

Amidst the comments that followed Bittersweet’s assessment of the new stallion in town, no one heard Vanguard’s softly-stated but indignant utterance. “Too smooth by half.”

* * *
Having parted with Tabby, Thomas, and Faline on the walk to their respective homes, Sugarberry noted her husband’s singular silence with misgivings. What had happened at Native Dreams to throw him into this pensive mood that seemed to shut her out? Her conversation once they were alone had either been ignored or met with unintelligible grunts. Of course, maybe he was quiet for Banderol’s sake, the little colt having had a hard day trying to keep up with the older and exuberant Tamarack. Sugarberry touched the stallion’s foreleg gently, an anxious look on her face. “Is something bothering you?”

Jolted from his reverie by the troubled tone in his wife’s voice, Vanguard turned his full attention to her and observed in some dismay that she was truly concerned about him. He flashed her a reassuring smile before launching into his explanation for his doldrums.

“It was the mention of this Rubicon; it set me to thinking about a past incident I had with a stallion by that name.”

“I’ve never known a Rubicon,” Sugarberry admitted. “Where did you meet yours?”

“We roomed together in college– Rubicon, Discus, and I. Rubicon and I became very good friends.”

“Could your Rubicon and the art director be one and the same?”

“He’s not my Rubicon, Sugarberry,” sharply retorted Vanguard. Immediately regretting the biteof his response, he apologized. “I’m sorry. I have no reason to be short with you; it’s Rubicon who has me irked.”

“So you do think the art director is the same stallion you knew in college?”

“He was a business major with an art minor, and I heard more than a few fillies comment on his eyes and his manner. And as you pointed out, there aren’t that many stallions with the name Rubicon.”

“If he was a friend, why are you... annoyed with him?”

“Well,” Vanguard sighed and shifted the sleeping Banderol to a more comfortable position, “Rubicon was always short of funds, so I often loaned him jangles to see him through. By the time graduation rolled around, he’d borrowed a substantial amount, plus I had made good on his last portion of the rent payment. Rubicon said he’d have the money on graduation day as his favorite aunt had promised him a monetary gift.”

“But he didn’t pay you back?”

“No, he didn’t.”

“Maybe there were extenuating circumstances.”

“All I know is that Mom and Dad came for the graduation ceremony and had taken me out for lunch. Discus had opted not to go through the formal ceremony, so he had already left town several days earlier; Rubicon had told me that morning that he’d settle his account later as we were both going to be at the apartment yet that night, checking-out the following morning.

“My parents and I ran into Decagon, the head of the Mathematics Department, at the restaurant; and he and his family got along well with Mom and Dad, so we were all invited to Decagon and Paisley Pinafore’s house for a post-graduation get-together. It was evening when I got back to the apartment and discovered that Rubicon had packed-up his belongings and left. As he and I had shared over two years of college life, I was disappointed that he left without so much as a goodbye. Needless to say, I never saw my jangles again, either.”

“Did you ever try to get in touch with him?”

“He had always said that the jangles from his aunt would finance a tour of art museums; a call to his parents confirmed that he had done just that, but they were unsure as to his exact itinerary. I went directly into my masters work, writing off my loss to stupidity and experience.”

“This Rubicon must have been a decent sort of fellow to have earned your friendship.”

“At least we were both serious in our studies, unlike Discus who only put in his time. But Rubicon was a very gregarious sort of guy who was always the center of attention– the fillies flocked to him– so he had to be brought back to earth from time-to-time. Then he was capable of deep thinking. He used to say that I kept him tethered to reality so that he didn’t completely lose track of his reason for being in college.”

“I’ll bet you missed his company.”

“I was busy enough; but, yeah, life was a lot quieter.”

Both ponies fell into silence as they thought over events of the past that now returned to affect the present. Sugarberry was the first to speak.

“You’re bound to meet Rubicon here in Dream Valley at some point, and there’s no benefit in harboring old grudges. And besides,” she grinned, her voice teasing, “you needn’t loan him any more jangles.”

“That’s a given,” Vanguard grinned in return.

* * *
Looking forward to his luncheon date with Sugarberry, Vanguard found himself at the food court at the mall earlier than expected. Ordering himself a cup of coffee, he claimed a table with a good view of the mall corridors and settled in to wait for his wife.

His mind busily assessing the problems of one of his students who was having a difficult time adjusting to college life at Pony Pride, Vanguard was taken completely by surprise when a male voice interrupted those thoughts.

“Van! Who’d have thought I’d run into you here?”

Vanguard looked up to see a lime green stallion smiling broadly at him. “Rubicon. I’d heard you’d taken the position at the new art center.” He leaned back in his chair, determined not to show any emotion– good or bad– toward the stallion.

Rubicon seemed not to notice the rather cool reception. He drew up a chair across from Vanguard and sat down. “Yes. I was hoping to come into town without my reputation preceding me, however.” He leaned forward confidingly. “Promise me that you won’t reveal my darkest secrets.” He grinned. “Life has been good since college... two years in New Pony taught me more than twenty years studying out of books could have. Opened up my own gallery in Golden City, then sold out to my trusted assistant so I could get back to the heartland of Ponyland. And here I am in Dream Valley. What’s your story?”

Rubicon’s rambling dissertation took the edge off Vanguard’s smouldering indignation over seeing his old friend again, and he was able to smile, albeit stiffly. “I’m teaching at Pony Pride.”

“Ahh. So that explains your presence here. Small world. I know I said in my farewell note that I’d keep in touch, but New Pony just had too many... diversions.” He grinned. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”

Puzzled by this reference to farewell correspondence, Vanguard asked, “What note?”

“The one with the pile of jangles I left for you,” Rubicon replied. “Looking back, I wonder how I could have spent so many jangles on a mare that I’ve never once seen since graduation day.” He chuckled. “It seemed worth it at the time. Do you know where Goldstar ended up?”

Ignoring that last question, Van stated flatly, “There was no note and no jangles.”

“Yeah. Sure. That many jangles would have been impossible to miss.”

“There were no jangles.”

“Sure there were... in an envelope on your backpack. I knew you wouldn’t leave without that thing. The note and the jangles, plus interest, nearly eclipsed your threadbare tote.” He looked smug. “I’m sure you were surprised to find that I really did keep track of every transaction made between us.”

If you left the jangles for me, I never found them.”

“You couldn’t have missed them, Van.” Rubicon reiterated, leaning forward over the table, Vanguard’s words finally beginning to take on some meaning. “I left full payment for my loans.”

“Why didn’t you give it to me directly?”

“Because I didn’t have it to give until my aunt gave me her gift; you weren’t anywhere to be found by then, so I left it with your things.”

“You weren’t supposed to leave until the next day, like me.”

“That was the plan, but my dad had to hurry home because of some business crises, so I packed up quick so my family could help get my stuff moved out. Dad was impatient to get on the road; I couldn’t wait around for you any longer.”

“Did you lock up when you left?”

“Yes; it was the last thing I did before giving Ralph my key.”

“It was late when I left Mom and Dad at the motel; when I got to the apartment, there was nothing of yours to be seen... no note... no jangles.”

“So what happened to them?”

“I always assumed... that you hadn’t seen fit to pay me back.”

Rubicon straightened and pushed back his chair, his honor slighted. “You thought I’d reneged on my debt to you?”

“What else was I to think? From my point of view, it looked like you’d cleared out in a hurry; at the time it made sense that you left early for the express purpose of avoiding payment.”

“I thought we were better friends than that.” Rubicon’s gaze held Vanguard’s, but Vanguard did not flinch.

“I thought the same thing.”

The two stallions stared at one another, both assessing the facts, before Rubicon finally said, “Okay. So what happened to the blunt?”

Van shrugged, still slightly suspicious. “Maybe Ralph came snooping around.”

“Ralph?” Rubicon snorted. “All he wanted was to get back to his bed; he’d been partying all night. He was barely cognizant enough to accept my key.”

“No one else would have had access; Discus was already gone.”

Rubicon started. “He was in Binksville that day.”

“He couldn’t have been; he’d left several days before us.”

Rubicon shot Van a withering glare. “The road leads both ways, Van. I saw him that afternoon... not to talk with, but he was going into that old restaurant on Main when my folks and I finally hit the road. He was with that local filly from the bowling alley that he hung out with.”

“Okay, so he was in town; but he wouldn’t have had a key anymore.”

“If he woke Ralph up to get in, Ralph would have given him the key just to be rid of him.”

“And if Discus did get in and saw the envelope...”

“We both knew Discus well enough; he wouldn’t have been adverse to helping himself to it, knowing that his presence in the room would go unnoted; I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Ralph was the first to receive some of my... um, your... jangles.”

“Discus couldn’t get away from Binksville fast enough; that’s why he didn’t stay for graduation. Why’d he come back? He couldn’t know the jangles would just be lying there.”

“That should be obvious enough, Van. He probably found he missed Trudy more than he thought he would. I can well imagine that he was just looking for a place to sleep-off his own wild night of partying and stumbled over a pile of jangles instead. I never had anything against Discus; but yet, he was less intimidated by rules than either you or I were.”

Both stallions fell into silence, thinking over the conversation they had just shared, before. Vanguard voiced his impressions. “It’s not so much the jangles; it’s more frustrating to know that someone we considered a friend would do such a thing,”

“I saw him in New Pony once or twice after I settled there,” Rubicon stated. “Come to think of it, the first time was shortly after I arrived; Discus came across me at the art gallery where I was working and bragged about a rare find he’d just made. I’ll bet I know now how he paid for it.”

The stallion’s angry eyes softened as he looked over Van’s shoulder and whistled. “Wow! Dream Valley has more than its fair share of beauties. There’s a mare I’d like to meet!”

Van turned, following his gaze, and grinned. “I just might be able to arrange that.” He stood up as Sugarberry came across the center court, her face slightly flushed from hurrying, making her more lovely than ever.

Rubicon watched enviously as the mare came straight to Van and softly kissed his cheek. “I’m sorry I’m late, but my meeting with Macarius took longer than I expected.”

“No problem. I met an old school buddy, and we’ve had a lot to talk over.” Sugarberry finally noticed the unfamiliar stallion now standing at the far side of the table and smiled warmly when she realized who he must be. Vanguard verified her impression. “Sugarberry, this is Rubicon, formerly of Binksville, New Pony, and Golden City, now director of the art center. Rubicon, this is my wife, Sugarberry.”

Rubicon’s eyes had been fastened on the mare, but at the word wife he flashed a glance at Vanguard in outright envy. Quickly recovering his manners, Rubicon returned his attention to Sugarberry. “We’d been so busy discussing... things... that I hadn’t learned yet that Van had married. I find that he has very good taste.”

The look of regard in Rubicon’s eyes caused Sugarberry to blush and caused Vanguard to hasten to assist his wife into a chair which he had quite adeptly moved closer to his own as if sending a blatant signal to Rubicon that at this table there was one couple and one individual, the single being Rubicon.

Sugarberry cupped her hoof over Vanguard’s but directed her question at Rubicon. “Are you finding your move to Dream Valley to be an enjoyable one?”

“More so every minute,” he drawled, raking a glance over Sugarberry that reddened her cheeks even more deeply and prompted Vanguard to glower.

Vanguard suddenly wanted to get his wife as far away from Rubicon as he could. “This had been an enlightening visit, Rubicon; but if I want to be back on campus for my next class, Sugarberry and I will have to eat our lunch now. As director of the art center, you must have pressing business to tend to as well.”

“We have art all around us, Van,” Rubicon stated, his eyes only momentarily flicking away from Sugarberry’s face to send a squelching glance Van’s way. “It’s my duty to study it as I find it.”

Fortunately, the spirited Bittersweet came into the food court at that moment; and spying Van and Sugarberry and Rubicon, she directed her steps in their direction. “Hi, Van, Sugarberry. I see you’ve met the art director.” Uninvited, she sat in the chair between Vanguard and Rubicon. “How’s business?” she queried of the stallion.

“We’ve still got a few bugs to work out,” Rubicon admitted, “but nothing major. The grand opening for the art center will run quite smoothly, I’m sure.”

Having been thwarted in his attempt to get rid of Rubicon, Vanguard was at least relieved to have Bittersweet garnering the stallion’s attention. “Sugarberry and I are going to get something to eat. How about you two?” His glance encompassed Rubicon and Bittersweet as if they were a pair, leaving Rubicon with no choice but to offer his escort to the unicorn, which Bittersweet willingly accepted. She had wanted a closer acquaintance with this stallion to influence his leanings toward Native Pony art... all for the sake of Native Dreams, of course.

Vanguard was pleased, too, that the rest of the time spent in Rubicon’s company was mollified by Bittersweet’s compelling presence. He was severely disappointed, therefore, when Sugarberry, upon saying her goodbyes to Rubicon as lunch ended, extended him an invitation to dine with them on Thursday night.

“Bittersweet, you and Teepee are welcome, too; and I’ll invite Dreamcatcher and Fetish; maybe I can get Wigwam to join us as well.”

Rubicon grinned. “It’s a date, Sugarberry. Thank you.” The look he sent Vanguard was one of pure victory.

Vanguard nearly groaned. He had forgotten just how cavalier Rubicon could be.

* * *
“Tamarack and Banderol have trapped Fluff in a cave,” grinned Dreamcatcher, coming into the kitchen to help Sugarberry with dinner preparations now that the two foals were happily settled. “It’s a good thing that cat has such low energy levels; he doesn’t even mind being stuffed in a box.”

This reference to her cat’s ample size and low activity level caused Sugarberry to roll her eyes. “That cat! He doesn’t even go up the stairs anymore. But I’ll bet you that Raptor is even now sitting at the top of the stairs watching the foals through the balustrade.”

“Yes; there was no capturing that one,” Dreamcatcher verified; then, surveying the foodstuffs in progress, asked, “What can I do to help?”

The two mares were interrupted at that moment by a young stallion rushing into the room from the direction of the basement. “Oh, hi,” he grinned, seeing Dreamcatcher. “Sug, mind if I grab a couple of cookies? I’ve got some research to do at the library.”

“That’s your supper?” queried Sugarberry in a disapproving voice as Licorice raided the cookie jar.

“Don’t worry; I’ll grab some milk at the cafeteria. Oh, and you can read this letter from Mom; she’s enclosed some pictures of Vi.” The ebony stallion was out the door before Sugarberry could say another word.

“How are things going with your new boarder?” inquired an amused Dreamcatcher.

“He’s certainly no trouble,” admitted Sugarberry. “He has his own computer in his basement room, so he’s seldom underhoof. In fact, I wish he’d spend more time with us.”

“Has he made his own friends?”

“Actually, he’s become quite close to Snapper, Turtledove’s son. They both vanish downstairs to play those computer games.” Sugarberry finished unmolding the jello salad and picked up the envelope that Licorice had dropped on the table.

“Oh, look!” she cooed. “Isn’t little Victorian Violet adorable?” She shared a photo of a tiny purple filly with curly dark green hair framing her face.

“So this is Buck and Columbine’s foal. She is a cutie.”

“And look, here she is with her parents and grandparents. What a charming family! Lilac and Trendy look awfully pleased to have a little filly in their midst after raising three colts.” Buck, Licorice’s brother, and all the Birdsong family held a special place in Sugarberry’s heart for it was at their hilltop bed-and-breakfast that she and Vanguard had met.

The buzzer going off on the stove brought the mare back to the moment. “I’ll get the biscuits, you can carry the salad into the dining room.” As the mares bustled to attend their duties, Wigwam walked in on them.

“Tamarack wanted to start a fire so that he could smoke Fluff out of his cave,” he grinned. “Bandy seconded the idea.”

“You didn’t plant the idea to begin with, did you?” asked Sugarberry, slanting a suspicious gaze at the stallion.

Wigwam raised a hoof in denial. “It was all Tam’s idea... to start with.”

Sugarberry and Dreamcatcher exchanged an exasperated look. “So what did you suggest to the foals?” asked Dreamcatcher.

“That water might prove just as effective.”

“You didn’t!” exclaimed both mares at once.

Wigwam shrugged. “The foals thought it was a good idea.” He tried to hide a smile. “You should have seen Fluff run.” He then took the basket of bread from Sugarberry and the salad from Dreamcatcher and headed for the dining room.

“Wait ‘til he has foals of his own,” griped Sugarberry under her breath as a dripping long-hair slunk into the kitchen looking for a place to hide.

“Yes, we’ll pay him back in full measure,” agreed Dreamcatcher. The mares looked at one another and grinned.

* * *
“It’s very gratifying to meet a mare who is not only beautiful but can cook,” drawled Rubicon as he finished the last of his lemon meringue pie. “The entire meal was delicious, Sugarberry; and I thank you again for inviting me.”

Accepting the compliment gracefully, Sugarberry smiled at the stallion. “It was a pleasure, Rubicon. I’m happy you were free to spend the evening with us.” She extended her smile around the entire table.

“It was a veritable feast, Sugarberry,” agreed Wigwam, “and I, for one, volunteer to do the dishes. Teepee, how about lending me a hoof?”

“We never could do the dishes without getting into an argument,” observed Teepee, remembering how he and his sibling used to antagonize one another over the unwelcome chore. “But I’m willing to give it a try. It’s the least I can do, Sugarberry.”

“I hope you don’t change your mind when you see the stack of pots and pans in the kitchen,” teased Sugarberry. “But I insist that you let me clear the table; I need to know where the leftovers end up.”

* * *
Once Sugarberry had Wigwam and Teepee settled over the kitchen sink and she and Dreamcatcher had convinced Banderol and Tamarack to settle down to bed, she joined her other guests in the cozy turret section of the living room where they were convivially discussing life experiences. Sugarberry slipped onto the window seat next to her husband and listened in.

“I’ve never been to Golden City, Rubicon. Is it as beautiful as one hears it is?” queried Dreamcatcher.

“The city was planned to be beautiful,” said Rubicon, “and it succeeded beyond expectations. Every building is an architectural masterpiece, the layout is designed for convenience, and the landscaping is magnificent. It is truly a city worthy of Queen Majesty and her royal court.”

“I’m surprised you’d leave such a paradise,” noted Bittersweet. “It sounds like a perfect setting for your art gallery.”

“My gallery was quite prosperous,” admitted Rubicon. “But I wanted to get away from the fast-paced eastern shore and get back to my roots.”

“Where did you hail from?” Fetish asked.

“A small town off the northernmost spur of the Black Mountains called Cedarmont. It’s wonderfully scenic– caters to the tourist crowd– but I... well, you know what they say: You can’t go home again.” A bleak look came over his face for an instant, but was quickly masked. “When I came to interview with the art council, I found Dream Valley to be a very welcoming community... and it has a great deal of beauty to offer as well.” Rubicon’s gaze settled on Sugarberry for a moment but then continued on to encompass Bittersweet and Dreamcatcher, too.

Vanguard cleared his throat. “I hear that Gauntlet, one of the art teachers at Pony Pride, will have some of his work on display for the grand opening.”

“Ah, yes, Gauntlet. His abstract work is intense. There’ll be several art demonstrations going on throughout the afternoon as well: calligraphy, etching, mosaic, and landscape painting. And two art pieces are being raffled off.”

“It sounds like a lot of fun,” enthused Bittersweet. “Will there be face painting for the kids?”

Directing his gaze in Sugarberry’s direction, his focus directed to the strawberry that centered her face, he smiled. “I hadn’t thought of that, Bittersweet, but it sounds like an excellent idea... a little adornment to accent each colt or filly’s distinct comeliness. Don’t you agree, Van?” His smile widened into a crooked grin.

Vanguard looked at his wife, and although he was perturbed by Rubicon’s unabashed enjoyment of Sugarberry’s appearance– as if she was a painting on display– he could only concur that the little red strawberry did add to her appeal. He had kissed that spot often enough, hadn’t he? “How could I not agree?” he queried softly.

“What have we missed?” inquired Wigwam as he and Teepee came on the scene. Teepee immediately sat in the chair next to Bittersweet while Wigwam ensconced himself next to Sugarberry in the space still left.

“We were discussing the grand opening at the art center,” Sugarberry informed him, tearing her eyes away from Vanguard. “By the sounds of it, there will be quite an assortment of art to view and a number of activities to entertain. I hope you’re planning to attend.”

“I wouldn’t miss the big day,” Wigwam assured the listening ponies, then asked, “When is it again?”

“The Sunday after next from one ‘til five,” stated Rubicon. “I expect you all to be there. The kids will be entertained and there will be refreshments available, so there’s no excuse not to participate.”

“Free food is too good a deal to pass up,” decided Teepee. “The art, on the other hoof...” He allowed his voice to trail off.

“There will be something there to please every taste,” verified Rubicon, “For instance, from the local environs, we’ll have Princess Primrose’s watercolors, Walnut Sprigs’ charcoal drawings, and Sundance’s landscapes. Then there are natural wood carvings by Scuttle and Tarkington’s representational art. No one will go away dissatisfied.”

“What about a display from the Native Ponies?” asked Dreamcatcher, frowning at the art director.

“That was to be a surprise,” Fetish admonished his wife. “You’ll find out the day of the opening.”

“And just how would you know?” Dreamcatcher scowled.

“Hey! I have my sources!” defended Fetish.

To prevent Dreamcatcher from nagging her husband too much, Wigwam changed the subject. “Sugarberry, when’s your next book coming out?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“Ah! But I asked you first!”

“It’s on hold right now. Norman, my literary agent in Hayton, has always submitted my manuscripts to Waterbury Publishing; but Macarius here in town would like Fairfax Monk to handle them from now on. Norman and Macarius are doing some negotiating, but it looks like Norman might be moving to Dream Valley in the near future; Macarius offered him a job.”

“Another new stallion coming to town,” mused Bittersweet while casting a coy glance at Teepee.

“Minx!” Teepee snorted, sending her a smouldering glance in return.

“You’re an author, Sugarberry?” Rubicon asked, his attention locked on the mare.

Sugarberry sighed while the others in the room laughed. “You blew it, Rubicon,” Wigwam informed the stallion. “Sugarberry doesn’t look kindly on ponies that don’t read her books.”

“Then I beg your forgiveness, Sugarberry.”

“Don’t feel badly. A preponderance of ponies are nescient where my books are concerned,” Sugarberry assured Rubicon.

Wigwam chuckled. “Now you have her talking like an author. I told you, Van, you shouldn’t have bought her that new thesaurus.”

“You can check her books out at the library or the mall bookstore, as well as Wigwam’s– although you might want to wait for his latest that will be out in November,” Bittersweet directed toward Rubicon. “I’m reading Sugarberry’s Silent Are the Bells right now.”

“Which reminds me,” Sugarberry hastened to say, “Father Isaac is in need of donations to repair some damage to the bells at church. Until some extensive maintenance is done, those bells are going to remain silent.”

Sugarberry’s ploy successfully stifled any further conversation of her books as the ponies began to argue the relative merits of sounding bells by means of the traditional bell-rope as compared to the computerized systems so popular in current times.

* * *
A steady stream of visitors graced the new Dream Valley Art Center on the Sunday of its grand opening making it a festive occasion for all. As Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Banderol toured the exhibits and enjoyed the refreshments, they came across many ponies with whom to talk, some of whom they saw all too seldom. Agatha and Hubert, Toby and Fern, Maisie and Crescendo, Becca and Roland, Miranda and Jack (the stallion had made a special trip to Dream Valley to tour the art center), Sparkler and Talcum, Poeticus and Lemon Treats with little Limelight, Melonball and Springtime with the royal twins, Deadline and Kyrene, Firethorn and Bluebonnet and family, the Falling Leaves family complete with their youngest daughter, Princess Tiffany, and many more. Tabby, Thomas, and Faline came with the new vet in town, Marina. Wishbone and Garnet walked in at the same time as Philippe, Tamara, and Baby Hugh. It seemed that everyone in Dream Valley wanted a glimpse of the interior of the art center.

Not everyone was a familiar face, however. Some of the ponies were art dealers from out of town looking for the latest talent, some were veritable operatives sent by rival galleries to see what they could do better, some- it was whispered- were famous artists from New Pony and Hayton, and some were simply art lovers.

The galleries were difficult to walk through because of all the groups of chatting ponies, and Rubicon tapped his hoof more than once in vexation that ponies rather than the artwork were receiving most of the attention. Baby ponies with every imaginable design painted on them attested to the success of the face-painting; Rubicon cringed, however, whenever one of the little darlings rushed by him, scuffing the new flooring, spilling punch everywhere, and hampering the general flow of traffic. He consoled himself over the fact that the artwork in the raffle was generating some hefty funds to support the activities of the center.

Dreamcatcher was ecstatic to see that one prominent Native Pony had been featured in the exhibit. “Fetish, look at these paintings by Lodestone! No wonder you couldn’t talk him into placing any of his work in Native Dreams; this is an ideal exhibition for someone of his caliber.”

Fetish grinned. “Who do you think introduced Lodestone to Rubicon? I knew they would both benefit from this showing. And,” he grinned even wider, “Lodestone will be favoring your shop with his artwork in the future.”

“You arranged that?” Dreamcatcher looked at her husband in awe and pride. “I’m impressed.”

“I can see this piece on display at the casino,” Wigwam noted, referring to a haunting painting of a lone Native Pony at the base of a magnificent waterfall, his camp pitched in the shelter of a cluster of stately pines.

“Everything Lodestone does exemplifies the Native Pony culture in utmost accuracy. It’s like being swept back in time to experience a moment of our past,” Bittersweet stated.

Tabby was standing nearby. “Native Ponies, Native Ponies! They’re all I hear about anymore. You’d think they were entirely responsible for settling this part of Ponyland. Everybody’s overlooking the original Greek culture that flourished here. But noooo, it’s always more Native Pony stuff and nobody thinks about anything else!”

“Tabby, your mother is signaling for you,” fibbed Thomas, tugging his wife away from the Native Ponies before a ruckus could ensue.

“Sugarberry, do you have a moment?” Wigwam caught the mare as she passed by. “What have you heard from Chocolate Chip?” The stallion, so as not to put undue pressure on the young chocolate brown mare concerning his proposal of marriage that he had left open-ended so that she could change her mind if she experienced a change of heart, did not communicate directly with Chocolate Chip but got his information about her doings in New Pony through Sugarberry, Garnet, and Fern. As Chocolate Chip’s messages were becoming fewer and farther between as time went on, he was hard pressed to keep up-to-date on her activities.

“She called last night,” Sugarberry admitted, “but she really didn’t have any news. You know it’s always the same with her– work, work, and more work. She’s involved with a rather important account at the moment, and I could tell that her mind was more on those facts and figures than on our conversation.”

“She’s content, then.”

Sugarberry thought a moment before answering. She had noted a certain sadness in Chocolate Chip’s voice that spoke of loneliness and a longing for something that remained unfulfilled, but she did not want to raise Wigwam’s hopes unnecessarily for the mare had not spoken of Wigwam during the call. “Yes. She seems to have proven invaluable to her supervisor.”

“She’s invaluable to me, Sugarberry.”

“Don’t start, Wigwam,” Sugarberry cautioned the stallion, “or I’ll have Tabby give you another lecture.”

“Heaven forbid!” Wigwam feigned terror. “Having Tabby ring a peal over my head once was enough.” He grinned. “Thanks for reminding me to honor Chocolate Chip’s freedom.”

“Might I interrupt?” asked a blue stallion who had been standing patiently to the side waiting for a chance to talk with Sugarberry himself.

“Macarius, you wouldn’t be interrupting,” Sugarberry smiled. “Wigwam and I were going over old ground.”

“Well, I’m glad to be the bearer of some news, then.” He flicked Wigwam a dismissive look.

“If you two will excuse me...” Wigwam discreetly melted away.

“This concerns Norman?” Sugarberry asked.

“Yes, it does. Norman has agreed to join the ranks of Fairfax Monk Publishing, so your manuscript will be officially turned over to us in the very near future... if you are still agreeable to that course of action.”

“As long as Norman is satisfied, I will be, too.”

“Great! We want to have the book available in time for the holidays. Having two local authors putting out books from such diverse genres should corner the market for us.”

“Wigwam’s second volume of Native Pony tales is sure to be a hit.”

“With everyone but Tabby,” grinned Macarius.

* * *
Rubicon was in the foyer of the art center greeting more guests when he looked up into the face of a honey-colored stallion. “Discus!” he proclaimed.

“You seem surprised to see me,” the stallion replied. “You don’t think I’d miss your latest venture, did you?”

“Well, Discus, you must admit that we haven’t kept in touch much down through the years. What have you been doing with yourself?” Rubicon scanned the area, wondering where Vanguard was.

Discus followed Rubicon’s survey of the crowd. “I’m doing good... always on the lookout for the latest hot artist. And as you only handle the best, I knew I couldn’t go wrong to come here... even if it is off the beaten path. I was surprised to hear you’d left Golden City.”

“It was time for a change. But I’m glad you’re here,” he said, guiding his old roommate into the main gallery. “By the way,” Rubicon said, suddenly spying Vanguard talking with Poeticus and Lemon Treats and turning his steps to head in that direction, “you’ll never guess the pony I ran into the other day.”

“I’d imagine you’ve run into quite a few,” Discus quipped, dodging ponies in the crowded room. He did not see the country blue stallion to whom Rubicon was aiming.

“Vanguard,” Rubicon drawled, “look who the cat just drug in.” He winked at the country blue stallion and discreetly shook his head side-to-side, sending a subtle message on how to handle this unexpected reunion. At his side, Discus stiffened.

When Vanguard saw who was accompanying Rubicon, he nearly succumbed to an overriding desire to punch the honey-colored stallion in the jaw as payment for taking advantage of both him and Rubicon on that graduation day when the jangles had disappeared; but Rubicon’s subtle warning curbed his anger. He forced a smile.

“Good to see you again, Discus.” He extended his hoof for a more acceptable greeting.

“Hey, Vanguard! What’s shakin’?” The stallion visibly relaxed at having made it over what could have been a disconcerting hurdle. It was to his benefit if neither Rubicon or Vanguard were aware of his actions on that day back in Binksville.

“I’m happily settled in Dream Valley with my wife and son, and I teach at Pony Pride.”

“All neat and tidy, huh?” the stallion grinned. “You mathematicians are all alike– have to have everything solved in a concise and orderly fashion. That was never my style.”

“So what are you doing these days?”

“I’m having the time of my life, Van. Has Rubicon told you about eGallery?”

Rubicon looked confused. “eGallery? That’s one of those internet auction sites, isn’t it? What would you have to do with one of those?”

“You can’t mean that you don’t patronize the site!” Discus responded in obvious disappointment. “I could understand that Van wouldn’t stay current with one of the hottest venues in art sales in modern times; but you, old boy, should be better informed. eGallery is the premier online art auction site, and it was all my idea. It was the best scheme... ah, venture... I’ve ever come up with.”

“I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind this, Discus,” Rubicon said, “but one of my volunteers is beckoning for me.” He cast a speaking glance at Vanguard, then returned his gaze to Discus. “Maybe the three of us could get together for dinner some evening while you’re in Dream Valley.”

“I thought I’d hang around for a day or two,” Discus admitted. “How about tomorrow night?”

“That’s swell. I’ll leave you two to work out the details... gotta run.” The art director left to attend to his duties, and the other two stallions set the time and place for their dinner reunion.

“Will your wife be joining us?” queried Discus of Vanguard.

“No. She has an important meeting that I’m sure she wouldn’t want to miss,” Vanguard said. “But come with me now, and I’ll introduce you to her.” Finding Sugarberry in the company of Garnet and Tabby in front of a large, garish work by Gauntlet, Vanguard made the introductions.

“Dream Valley has some real advantages, I see,” drawled Discus, enjoying the vision of the three lovely redheads against a backdrop of black and white squares and circles. “Tabby, as you are a vet, maybe you could help me with a problem I’ve been having...”

“And maybe you can help me with a problem I’ve been having,” Tabby smiled sweetly, thinking of Marina. “But you go first...”

As the pink unicorn and the honey gold stallion walked off to discuss a feline behavioral problem, among other things, Sugarberry looked questioningly at Vanguard. “No hard feelings between the two of you?” she asked.

“Rubicon and I are dining with our erstwhile roommate tomorrow evening,” Vanguard disclosed. “I’ll be better able to answer your question then.”

* * *
“...so when Trudy laid down her ultimatum that I had to decide between her and art, what could I do?” Discus grinned and raised his glass to Vanguard and Rubicon in a toast to his former girlfriend.

The three stallions were dining at the Estate Manor, sharing anecdotes from their lives since going their separate ways after college. Vanguard had taken the traditional path, dedicating his life to job and family while Rubicon had moved into the elite circle of fine art. Discus had embraced the electronic age, settling into the face-paced world of the internet with all the gusto his friends would have expected from such an impatient and enthusiastic character.

Rubicon nailed Discus with a sharp look. “None of us were swimming in jangles by the time we graduated. I imagine your decision to drop Trudy helped your lack of finances as well.”

Discus squirmed just a bit as he noted the intensity of that gaze and was not heartened to see that Vanguard, too, was watching him with heightened interest.

“I was lucky in stumbling onto that lost piece by Dauber. I told you about that, Rubicon, when I saw you in New Pony.”

“And how did you fund that purchase?” queried Rubicon.

Discus’ gaze faltered briefly. “The pony who had it didn’t realize what a treasure it was; I got it for a steal.” As soon as that word left his mouth, Discus realized his slip; but he could not call it back. He fiddled with his napkin instead.

“Interesting way of phrasing it,” drawled Vanguard. “Wouldn’t you say, Rubicon?”

“Quite interesting. It brings to mind the jangles I left behind at Binksville for you, Van. I believe you said you never found them,” Rubicon said conversationally.

“Exactly so,” returned Vanguard. “It was as though someone had found a... steal.”

Finding himself under such close scrutiny, Discus took a much needed drink before responding. “I’d left town, remember? The two of you are looking at me as if you blame me somehow.”

“But you were in Binksville that day, Discus. Trudy remembers, if you don’t.”

“Even if I was there, I wouldn’t have had a key to access the apartment...” Discus retorted. “If that’s where the jangles disappeared from,” he added quickly.

“Ralph was a good landlord in that he kept his nose to himself,” Rubicon mused. “It did make him rather lax in some areas, however.”

“Look, I’m sorry if you two misplaced some jangles; but it’s not my problem. Okay?”

“Ah, but if you are the one that took those misplaced jangles, Discus, it is very much your problem,” Rubicon dared to say.

“The three of us trusted one another,” Vanguard added. “It took only one to destroy that.” He shifted his gaze from Discus to Rubicon. “I owe you an apology for doubting that trust.”

“Accepted, Van. I’m sure I’d have come to the same conclusion as you did if the situation had been reversed.” Rubicon turned his attention back to Discus. “At least admit your mistake, Discus. Your expression gave you away when this topic first came up; Van and I could read you like a book, remember?”

“It wasn’t fair back then, and it isn’t fair now,” Discus growled. “But as you already hold me guilty, I guess there’s no real harm in admitting that, yes, I had decided to crash at the apartment and came across a goodly sum of jangles just sitting there, waiting for the taking. I helped myself to the jangles, destroyed the note, and left town very discreetly. No one was the wiser, I believed.”

“Didn’t you foresee that Van would hold me responsible?” Rubicon asked.

Discus shrugged. “Van was too honorable to come right out and ask you for the jangles, not after you’d promised that you’d have the money for him before the two of you left town.”

Rubicon grinned. “Is that true, Van? Could I have kept those jangles for myself?”

“As I didn’t know where you’d gone, I couldn’t have done much about it,” Vanguard admitted. “But I’m glad to know the true story now.”

“Don’t go and get all sentimental, guys,” scowled Discus. “I’ll make up the amount I took...”

“Plus interest,” stated Rubicon.

“Give me a break!” griped Discus.

“What do you say, Van?”

“A fair amount of interest wouldn’t be frowned upon.”

“Oh, all right. It’s not that I can’t afford it,” grumped the honeyed stallion. “I can transfer the funds online tonight.”

“That will work out well,” triumphed Vanguard. “As the jangles are going to go toward Princess Tiffany’s charitable work and as the princess is meeting with her advisors this very evening and as my wife is there right now, why don’t we head over to the Royal Paradise immediately and get this all squared away?”

“Excellent idea, Van!” agreed Rubicon. “What-da-ya-say, Discus?”

“I know when I’ve been defeated,” the stallion grimaced. “Lead the way.”

* * *
Princess Tiffany could not have been happier when she received a generous and unsolicited donation from a new acquaintance in support of her philanthropic endeavors. Discus blushed to receive her heartfelt thanks when he knew the disgraceful cause of this sizeable contribution. Rubicon enjoyed watching the once dishonest stallion retrieve his reputation, and Vanguard was pleased to have learned the truth and recovered his two friends.

He did think twice, however, when Sugarberry invited the stallions to join in the refreshments that Tiffany and her guests were currently enjoying, and Rubicon offered his foreleg to the mare before Vanguard could claim his wife’s company.

Flashing Vanguard an insolent grin, Rubicon said to Sugarberry, his eyes and voice soft and sultry, “I’ll be the envy of every stallion here to have the honor of the most beautiful mare present accompanying me.”

The stallion’s effusive praise was becoming tiresome to Sugarberry, especially knowing that he did it only to torment Vanguard. Sugarberry turned her head to catch Vanguard’s eye and winked. Then, she returned her attention to Rubicon and smiled warmly. “You’re referring to Falda, of course. I was just thinking myself that she is a cut above the rest of us.” Steering Rubicon in that mare’s direction, Sugarberry approached the pale blue pegasus with a flourish. “Falda, Rubicon was anxious to make your acquaintance; I’m sure that you’re aware that he’s the director of the art center. Rubicon, Falda was obliged to miss the grand opening as she was out of town for a cousin’s wedding, but she’s fascinated with the art world. I’m sure you’ll enjoy your refreshments together.”

Leaving the rainbow-maned mare with the sweet-tongued stallion, Sugarberry moved back to Vanguard’s side. “Falda can put up with his flattery for the rest of the evening; maybe the two of them will hit it off.”

“We can hope,” grinned Vanguard. “And as Discus has been spirited away by Princess Tiffany, that leaves only you and me.”

Sugarberry looked around at the fifteen to twenty ponies in the room and raised a brow. “Just you and me, my dear?” she queried.

“I was hoping, since you so effectively stifled Rubicon’s attention, that the two of us might slip out and enjoy a leisurely walk home in the moonlight.”

“I can’t think of anything I’d like better,” admitted the mare.

Her eyes sparkled as she allowed her husband to lead her out the door.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Story in Which Dietrich and Caprice are Rescued, and Thomas Proves his Worth
by Tabby (Tabby@NematodeMail.com)

Warning: You will probably notice that the action scenes are rather lacking in content. That’s because I forgot to get ideas from my brothers before it was time to send the newsletter.

Ponyland South Pacific

The storm winds blew blinding sheets of water across the deck of the rapidly sinking boat. The beige unicorn shielded her eyes from the rain and saltwater as she stepped back from the now-lowering lifeboat she had just helped a mother and her children into. Now, was there anyone else who needed aid? She peered around as best she could through the thick wall of rain and sea. She just couldn’t dream of evacuating herself when there were ponies more in need of help than she and her husband. But thankfully almost all the other passengers had made it off the sinking vessel and into lifeboats that would take them to safety. Oh, good, there was Dietrich leading an elderly stallion to one of the last lifeboats. She carefully navigated towards them.

“Is there anyone else?” Caprice shouted above the roar of the waves.

Dietrich shook his head. “The captain is making a last check around the ship, but this appears to be everyone.”

“Here, let me help,” Caprice said soothingly to the elderly stallion, who seemed to be having difficulties with one of his legs. She lent him her support. Then the deck started rocking with even more fury as an especially strong gust of wind blew. Crying out, Caprice lost her footing and went sliding down the deck, the old stallion with her.

“Caprice!” Dietrich shouted, holding out his hoof to try and catch her, but she slid by too quickly. He had been fortunate enough to grab onto the railing, and he started inching his way towards the other edge of the deck where Caprice was now grasping onto the railing with one hoof and the stallion, who seemed to have been knocked unconscious, with the other. “I’m coming!!”

But a strong wave whipped across that part of the deck, and due to the force of it Caprice felt her grip on the ship weakening. “Dietrich!” she screamed as the force finally bowled her and the elderly stallion overboard.

“Noooooo!” Plunging forward, Dietrich did the only thing he could think of and dived in after them. He couldn’t lose Caprice like this– he couldn’t!

Another great wave tossed over the vanishing ship, and soon it was gone from sight...

8 years later...


“It has a lot of frosting.” Thomas eyed the cake before him with some misgivings. At least, he thought it was a cake. Unless it was all frosting...?

“Yes!” Tabby beamed proudly. “Isn’t it lovely? I made it myself, you know.”

“I thought so.” Thomas didn’t know of anyone else who would layer on quite so many frosting flowers and trims onto a single cake. Maybe it had been a mistake buying Tabby that deluxe cake decorating kit. Well, even if he could live with a little less frosting himself, he wouldn’t let on with his trepidation and ruin her enjoyment. He smiled up at her. “You did an admirable job. I’ve never had a more... er... extravagant birthday cake than this.”

Tabby giggled girlishly at the praise. “Oh, I’d hoped you’d like it! And Faline put on the candles. Light them now, would you?”

After that was accomplished, Tabby proceeded to cut the confectionary overdose into rather large slices while Faline licked excess icing off the removed candles. Tabby stared at Thomas expectantly as she set the first piece in front of him.

“Go ahead and take your piece,” Thomas urged her hurriedly. It really was a lot of frosting. He couldn’t quite face it on his own.

Tabby shrugged and extracted another slice from the platter. “Mwine?” said Faline hopefully.

Tabby laughed and Thomas smiled wryly at his daughter. “I think you’ve had enough already,” he started to say as way of warning, but Tabby was already helping Faline to a luscious-looking purple frosting rose.

“Oh, she needs something special,” she defended herself. “It is her father’s birthday, after all!”

“Very well, but no more, or she’ll be sick,” Thomas gave in. “It is very rich,” he added, taking a tentative first bite.

“Yes,” Tabby said happily. But before she touched her own piece, she leaned forward and, resting her chin on her hooves, stared at him intently. “Well... there is something I’ve been saving to tell you today...”

“Oh? And what would that be?” Thomas looked at her curiously.

“I...” Tabby had just opened her mouth to speak when a loud rapping sounded on the door. “Well, who would that be at this time of night!” she exclaimed irritably.

“I’ll get it,” Thomas offered, pushing his chair back. “Hold that thought.”

“Sure... oh, Faline, you’ve gotten frosting all over Lee-Koo! Lee-Koo, you’re filthy. Come on, let’s get him cleaned up...” Tabby was quickly occupied by other matters as she took an unwilling Furby to the kitchen sink to be cleaned with an amused Faline overseeing the process.

Tabby pulled Lee-Koo up out of the water, and he resembled a drowned rat. “No doo-ay,” he said forlornly, puffing out his hair and shaking violently to remove the excess water. Faline was drenched in the process, but she only giggled hysterically.

Lee-Koo quickly forgot the trauma of his bath, however. He yawned several times in succession and dropped off to sleep. Tabby sent Faline to put her Furby guardian to bed and then went to see who the visitor had turned out to be. She hoped they wouldn’t be long, as she really had wanted to tell him...

* * *
Thomas opened the door and, even with the beam of the porch light illuminating the guest, couldn’t say that he recognized the pony before him. “Can I help you?” he asked cautiously.

“Well, Thomas, m’boy!” the stranger, a pale tan stallion with pastel blue hair, exclaimed, patting him heartily on the back. “So this was the right address after all. Not a bad place. Anyway, I got an interesting lead and I thought I’d better let you know about it right away...”

“Wait a second,” Thomas said, holding up a hoof and stalling the stranger’s speech. “Do I know you?”

“Well, I should hope you do!” the stranger said, looking affronted. “Don’t you remember your Uncle Colin?”

Thomas looked at him strangely. “I don’t have an Uncle Colin.”

“You don’t? Well, that’s news to me.” The stranger raised an eyebrow.

“I think you must have the wrong pony.”

“You’re Thomas, aren’t you? Thomas Fairfax?”

“Yes...”

“Well then, this is the right place.” Colin crossed his forelegs stubbornly.

“I’ve still never heard of you before,” Thomas said bluntly.

“Nonsense! You must have been all of, oh, two years old the last time I saw you! I visited my sister and her husband a few times after you were born.”

“Your sister?” Thomas echoed.

“As in, your mother.” Colin looked at him with disdain. “Really, I never expected Caprice to raise such a slowtop as you!”

“Caprice? My mother is... was... your sister?”

“Yes! Now you’re getting it!” Colin said sarcastically.

“Well, if that’s the case,” Thomas challenged, “why didn’t I meet you or at least hear about you from the rest of the family when I was in Forest Brook?”

“Oh, I imagine they’d given me up for lost again... they usually do whenever I disappear for a few years. Or else I’ve been disowned; it’s always difficult to know what my father is going to do.” Colin paused a moment to consider this. “He actually expected me to become some paper-pusher in the publishing firm! Hah, what a joke! In any case, he was none too happy when I flaunted his wishes and became an adventurer instead. Oh, and that brings me back to what I came here for...”

“Why don’t you come inside,” Thomas, after some deliberation, invited. From the facts this mysterious uncle had given him, paired with some faint recollections of his mother’s stories of her brother Colin, he was beginning to sound legitimate. Still, this was all very strange...

“It’s about time,” Colin said, availing himself of the invitation and stepping into the entrance hall and following Thomas’ lead. “Now, as I was saying, I got a lead on the whereabouts of your parents...”

“My parents?” Thomas paled and turned around quickly to face Colin. “What did you just say?”

Colin sighed. “Here we go again. All right, kid, your parents–”

“I know who my parents are... were,” Thomas said a bit shortly. “What did you say about them?”

“Oh, just that I finally located where they are,” Colin said cheerfully. “I was planning on setting out tomorrow and figured you might want to come along. Shall I count you in?”

“Is this your idea of a joke?” Thomas said furiously, his color heightening. The loss of his parents eight years ago had remained a sensitive point with him, and any violation of their memories met unfavorably with him.

Colin looked affronted. “I should think not! I’m one hundred percent serious. No need to blow up at me like that.”

“My parents are dead and I’ll thank you to refrain from using them as objects in your future pranks.” Thomas spoke evenly, but there were strong emotions brewing just beneath the surface.

“Dead? What are you talking about?” Colin was taken aback. “Surely you didn’t give up on them? Were the bodies ever found? Think about it!”

And it was then that Tabby came on the scene. “Hello?” she said, cocking her head at an impossible angle as she saw Colin for the first time. “Who are you? What’s going on? What bodies have been found?” She glanced from one to the other, sensing the tension in the air.

“Well, what was I supposed to think!” Thomas cried out bitterly, rounding on his uncle and ignoring Tabby. “All the reports said–“

“The reports! You listened to the reports?” Colin was shocked. “And you believed them?”

“What was I supposed to believe if not the authorities! Why should I believe you, instead, after all these years?”

“My, my. You really do have a lot to learn.” Colin shook his head slowly. “Well, I can tell you your first mistake was taking the authorities’ word for their demise. You’ve gotta get out there and find the facts for yourself. Which is what I’ve been doing.”

Hello! Would someone please tell me what is going on here!” Tabby stamped her hoof on the ground angrily. It was so annoying to be ignored like this!

Colin finally looked in her direction and bowed slightly as he realized there was a lady present. “I apologize. Very rude of us indeed. Perhaps you could introduce us, Thomas?”

Thomas glowered at Colin, but complied anyway. “Very well. This is my wife, Tabby; and Tabby, this is my... Uncle Colin.”

“Well, and what a fine family reunion this is.” Tabby crossed her forelegs and glared at them both. “Perhaps you could at least fill me in on what you’re both squabbling over.”

“I simply came to impart the news that my nephew’s parents are alive and well after all these years of him obviously believing them dead,” Colin said with great dignity.

“They’re preposterous claims, that’s all,” Thomas said with equal conviction. “I’d prefer to have my parents’ memories undefiled, not dredged up and put into public speculation!”

“Preposterous claims! As if you even listened to them!” Colin protested heatedly. “Look here, if you just don’t care enough about your parents to help recover them I’ll leave peaceably and do it on my own. I needn’t have my integrity doubted!”

“How dare you imply that!” Thomas said furiously. “You don’t know the first thing about the situation! If you–”

“Thomas, come with me.” Her own temper barely in check, Tabby grabbed him by the foreleg and propelled him into the next room where, shutting the door behind her with authority, turned to face him. “All right, what’s going on here?”

“I think that’s already been explained.”

“Not really.” Tabby faced him crossly. “I don’t see why you’re being so stubborn and insisting your parents are dead. I thought you’d jump at the opportunity to find them. Why are you acting like this?”

“You don’t know what it was like back then, Tabby,” Thomas said darkly, looking away. “You have no idea how many times I got my hopes up, thinking they’d come back again and everything would be like it was before.” When he looked at her again there was anguish in his eyes. “Do you think I didn’t do everything in my power to find them back then? And every avenue I tried assured me it was impossible for them to have survived. There are no islands close enough in the vicinity for them to have reached... alive. All vessels that had been in those waters were questioned, but they hadn’t found anything either. It’s impossible. It can be nice to dream, but sometimes it’s better and hurts less in the long run to just be realistic.”

“But everyone is fallible,” Tabby said quietly. “You can’t know anything for certain. Shouldn’t you take the risk, just one more time? What if they are there, Thomas? As long as it’s a possibility, it merits looking into.”

Thomas sighed and shook his head. “You can be remarkably reasonable when you want to be. Why do you let on to the world that you are a featherheaded ditz?” he asked softly.

“Because that’s what I like to be,” Tabby said simply.

“Very well then, I’ll listen to him, at least. And I’m sorry for snapping at you.”

“That’s all right,” Tabby said, giving him a quick kiss.

* * *
“Would you like some cake?” Tabby ran back into the living room, plate in hoof.

Colin looked at the offering with pleasure. “Ah! Just how I like it. Lots of frosting. Thanks.”

Tabby smiled broadly and took her seat next to Thomas, eagerly anticipating what this mysterious uncle had to say. Stories were so much fun!

“Well then,” Colin finally began, “now that that’s cleared up.” He beamed at his captive audience– or at least Tabby was captive. “I’ve been searching all this time for clues as to my sister’s whereabouts after the boating accident. Nothing had come to light, until just recently I found a piece of the very boat that had met its demise in the South Pacific eight years ago in the possession of a certain pony up north.

“He was reticent in giving me any details on how he came to possess this piece, but after some persuasion on my part–” Colin didn’t go into any details on what “persuasion” he had used– “he finally divulged what he knew. As it turns out, he had been on the same cruise as Caprice and her husband and was washed overboard in the storm. Later on he was picked up by a Yeti fishing vessel and taken to their island, along with two other ponies the Yetis had recovered. Interestingly enough, these two others answered to the names of Dietrich and Caprice.” He looked around smugly. “Any questions so far?”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Tabby’s hoof shot up and waved in the air wildly. “Question! What are Yetis doing in the South Pacific?”

“Why, it’s an outpost left over by the Great Yeti Migration, of course,” Colin said promptly. “During their journey from the Andes to the Himalayas, naturally.”

“Oooh,” Tabby nodded. “Right.”

Thomas cleared his throat. “Getting back to the original topic...”

“The original topic? Oh, right. In any case, Dietrich, Caprice, and this other guy had been rescued by the South Pacific Yetis and taken to their island for sanctuary until they could be rescued by their own kind. That was all well and good; but as fate would have it your father, Thomas, stumbled across something he shouldn’t have.” Colin shook his head. “No matter what I tried I couldn’t get any more details on what this was out of the old guy. But it must have been extremely important and sacred to the Yetis, for as a result of Dietrich’s having seen it, the Yeti chief decreed that none of the three ponies could leave the island.”

“What did they do with them?” Thomas leaned forward.

“Oh, nothing too harsh. The ponies were given a hut in the Yeti village to inhabit and were free to go around the village as they pleased, but were prohibited from going beyond the boundary. Dietrich, however, with his overwhelming urge to make the truth known on whatever this ‘thing’ was, would not allow them to be coerced like this.”

Thomas smiled a little wistfully. “Yeah, that’s for sure.”

“Several escapes between the three ponies were planned, but none were successful. Each time the captives were punished for their disobedience, but it didn’t break their spirits. Not Dietrich’s, at least.”

“What?! Were they hurt? What did the Yetis do to them?”

“Oh, nothing too serious I’m sure... Yetis are actually a very peaceful species, you know. Of course, when they get angry... but anyway. The last escape attempt that was tried failed in its entirety, but this other stallion took advantage of the situation and managed to slip away on a piece of debris left on the shore while the Yetis were occupied retaking Dietrich and Caprice. A lamentable way to repay them for their kindness to him, abandoning them and never attempting to send help to them.”

“But why?” Thomas’ eyes blazed. “Why didn’t he?!”

Colin shrugged. “Must have been afraid the Yetis would come after him if he did anything. This was several years ago, of course.”

“Then how do we know what’s happened in the meantime?”

“We don’t. That’s what this expedition to the South Pacific is for.” Colin looked at his nephew condescendingly. “Now that you’ve consented to hear the story, do you care to come or not?”

“Well, of course I will!”

“This is going to be fun!” Tabby said. “By the way, Colin, would you happen to know my father, Hubert Fershund? He talks like he would be one of your crowd.”

“Fershund... hmm... the name sounds familiar,” Colin mused. “Was it at the Monitarch... no, that’s not right... oh, yes, of course! Hubert Fershund! I believe I did meet up with him and a certain Lord Cobblestone once years ago at a Lartellian sacrifice ceremony. He had some interesting theories on the flying saucer men; I always wanted to look him up again...”

“In any case, that reunion can wait until this mission is carried out,” Thomas inserted firmly. “When do we leave?”

“That’s the spirit!” Colin beamed. “I suppose it’s too late to set out tonight yet.” He looked downcast. “Well, we’ll have to settle for the morning. I’ll aim at leaving the dock by six.”

“Lovely!” Tabby enthused. “Well, I’d better go and start preparing for the trip. Oh, and put Faline to bed, too. I wonder where she is...”

“Will Sugarberry be available to take care of her?” Thomas asked.

Tabby stared blankly. “Why?”

“Well, I hardly think she’s old enough to be left on her own yet.”

Tabby laughed. “Of course not! I’m not stupid! She’s coming with us, naturally.”

“Really, I don’t think that’s a good idea! We don’t know how dangerous this could get. It would be safer– ”

“This is her first opportunity for an adventure!” Tabby insisted. “I won’t have her miss out on it. It’s time she experienced more of the world.”

“There’s plenty of time for that in the future. She’s only three...”

I started traveling when I was only two, so Faline is definitely behind,” Tabby said stiffly. “Say, did I ever tell you about that first trip Mom and I went on to Paris? I don’t really remember it, but apparently I got involved with undoing some criminal element...” Tabby shook her head fondly at the memory. “That must have been amusing. But anyway...”

“Well, as long as she’s inherited her mother’s dumb luck for avoiding death in risky situations.”

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. Very well, Faline can come.”

“Oh, great! I’ll go tell her.”

“By the way, wasn’t there something you wanted to tell me before?”

“Tell you? Oh... oh! No, that’s nothing important,” Tabby said and hurriedly excused herself from the room.

* * *
The next morning on the sailing vessel, Colin outlined what he knew about the island and the Yeti settlement. He spread out a rough map. “This,” he announced grandly, “is the island. It’s fairly small, only about ten miles in diameter. The village is located approximately in the center, on the edge of a minor mountain range. We will land on the eastern edge, where the best shore is. From there we will walk; and, upon reaching the village, we take it by storm and rescue the prisoners. Any questions?”

“Ooh! Fun!” said Tabby.

“Wouldn’t it be best to negotiate with the Yetis first before using force?” Thomas asked.

Colin looked at him strangely. “What are you talking about? Why would we want to negotiate with them? In any case– ” he pointed back to the map– “from the information I gathered from the escapee, the house they were assigned is located on the western side of the village. The only entrance is a gate to the east. It’s surrounded by a wall, you see. So the plan is– ”

“Create a diversion at the gate while someone sneaks over the wall and enters the village!” Tabby said gleefully.

“Exactly!” Colin said. “The wall is erected of logs placed perpendicular to the ground and about fifteen feet high, so there are really no hoofholds to be counted on. But, a grappling hook should do the trick. Never leave home without one, I say. Anyway...”

“Who gets to act as the decoy?” Tabby asked eagerly.

Colin considered this. “How about Faline?”

“Hooway!” Faline cheered.

“I don’t think so,” Thomas said.

“Why not?” Tabby countered.

Thomas muttered something unintelligible and refused further comment. There was absolutely no point in arguing, and none of his suggestions were ever taken seriously. He didn’t know what use he was on these adventures, anyway. Apparently there was no need for adventurers to think rationally about anything! Sure, storm a village before even attempting negotiations! Sure, place a three-year-old as a decoy! Obviously these were all very sound courses of action to a certain clique of ponies to which he did not belong.

“It’s settled, then,” Colin declared. “Tabby and Faline will go to the gate and engage the Yetis in polite conversation. While they are distracted, Thomas and I shall climb over the wall and evacuate Dietrich and Caprice. Then we all make a run for the beach and head back to mainland. Any questions?”

“No,” said Tabby.

“Nwo,” said Faline.

“Whatever,” said Thomas darkly.

“Excellent,” said Colin.

“How much longer until we get there?” Tabby asked.

“Oh, we should be to the island by noon,” Colin assured them.

“Me bowed,” added Faline.

“Me, too,” Tabby sighed.

* * *
The rest of the journey was uneventful. The island came in sight on the horizon at the scheduled time and, after docking at the sandy white beach and having a light lunch, the foursome disembarked for the next part in the adventure, infiltrating the Yeti village.

Colin led the way through the thick jungle growth that grew up past the beach, cutting a path though the dense foliage. Tabby complained that there were no wild beasts a la Jem lurking in the shadows. Faline found a fairly large tropical spider to play with, which would have freaked her mother out had she ever looked behind her. Thomas wondered if the mission would end in anything other than disaster.

“We’re coming up on the village now,” Colin cautioned them quietly. “Let’s survey the situation.”

Suddenly the thick green jungle gave way into a clearing of moderate size. A sizeable wall of tropical tree trunks made a circular enclosure around what was obviously the Yeti village. A cluster of thatched huts stood within. Mist-shrouded mountains rose in the background. None of the village inhabitants could be seen, but there were a variety of noises coming from within the wall which indicated plenty of life.

“Excellent! The map seems to have been accurate on all counts so far,” Colin beamed. “Everyone in position!”

“Be careful,” Thomas admonished as the two groups split apart.

“Okay,” said Tabby brightly.

“Come on, let’s go,” Colin said, dragging Thomas off with him. Tabby waved encouragingly while Faline skipped ahead to knock on the gate.

“Hewwo, Yetis!” she said cheerfully as she rapped on the entrance exuberantly. When no one answered, she reiterated herself. “HEWWO, YETIS!”

After a few moments the gate was finally opened a crack and a furry white creature peered out. “It’s a little pony,” he said in surprise.

“A little pony? What sort of a little pony?” Another face appeared through the door. “What is it doing here?”

“I don’t know. There shouldn’t be any other ponies on the island. Unless there was another shipwreck?”

“Bah, not another shipwreck.” The Yeti’s tone clearly stated what he thought of shipwrecks.

“Yeah. So what should we do about these?”

“Send a messenger to the chief. And organize the rest of the militia in case this one should turn violent.”

“HEWWO!” Faline shouted, stamping her hoof. “I am WIGHT HERE! You are IGNOWING ME!”

“Yes,” Tabby agreed, stepping in. “You could ask us our purpose before organizing the militia against us.”

The Yeti tapped his hand on the stockade impatiently. “Very well then, what is your purpose?”

“We,” Faline announced, “are cweating a dwiversion.”

Lost, Faline, lost,” Tabby said emphatically. Turning to the Yeti, she laughed nervously. “Diversion, lost. She’s always getting those two words mixed up. Funny, huh?”

The Yeti looked skeptical. “Well, where do you come from?”

“Oh, y’know, Ponyland.”

“Then how did you get here?”

“Well, by boat of course.”

“Then I would suggest that you leave by boat.”

“But... we’re...” Tabby waved her hooves in the air.

“Cweating a dwiversion,” Faline offered.

Lost,” Tabby insisted. “Faline, what is that on your hoof?!”

“It’s my new fwiend, Mwommy.” Faline extended her hoof where the fuzzy little spider crawled. “Isn’t he cute?”

Faline! You know I hate spiders! Get rid of it!”

“Oh,” said Faline reluctantly, lowering it to the ground. “Cwan we see the village now?”

“No outsiders are permitted inside,” the Yeti said crossly.

“Well, what abwout the pwonies that came here befowe? ‘Ou let them in, didn’t ‘ou?”

“You know about the captives?” The Yeti’s eyes widened.

“Yes, and we have come to wescue them. That is why we are cweating a dwiversion. Duh!” said Faline.

“Faline!” Tabby exclaimed, finally paying attention to the conversation again. Hmm, leave it to Tabby to leave negotiations to a three-year-old.

“Spies!” the Yeti yelped, summoning helpers to his side. “Huelin, sound the alarm! Increase security around the captives’ hut! Capalija, we need to restrain these two! Bring the ropes!”

“Did I do somethwing wrong, Mwommy?” Faline asked, turning to her mother.

“It would appear so,” said Tabby.

* * *
Meanwhile, Thomas had just made it over the top of wall and was scanning the area from above.

“Well, how does it look?” Colin called from the ground.

“It’s pretty quiet... there are a few Yetis in the area, but they’re just going about their daily business... but I don’t know how we’ll know which hut to go to... wait!” Thomas gasped as he saw a beige unicorn approaching one of the huts carrying a basket with her. “It’s Mom!”

Colin heaved himself up as well. “The one on the right, eh? Looks good. The girls have the guards occupied at the gate, I see. All right, are you ready?”

“They really are still alive,” Thomas said in wonderment.

“That’s what I’ve been telling you all along, isn’t it?” Colin shook his head and then dropped to the ground on the village side of the wall. Thomas followed soon after.

Unfortunately, as they were creeping up to the hut in question, some sort of commotion broke out at the gate. Yeti cries resounded across the village as more of the creatures started pouring out of the woodwork.

“Something’s wrong,” said Thomas, peering around the edge of the closest hut which afforded him a view of the gate.

“Very observant,” said Colin sarcastically. “Mm, looks like the girls botched it.”

“Tabby! Faline!” Thomas cried out, ready to dart forward, but Colin stayed him.

“Not so fast, m’boy! The Yetis will be coming after us next.”

“But they need help! You’re not just going to stand back and let them–“

“FLEE INTO THE FOREST AND REGROUP, YOU IDIOTS!” Tabby shrieked as two Yetis tied her forelegs behind her back.

“She’s right,” Colin asserted, grabbing a hesitant Thomas as he saw a group of Yeti warriors quickly advancing in on them. “We’ll have to retreat and determine our next course of action.”

“But– ”

“If you want to stay behind and get captured as well, fine!” Colin said impatiently, managing to grip the top of the wall in a single leap with the threat of an advancing Yeti militia on his tail. “It’ll just be one more pony for me to get out of trouble. Now come on, and be quick!”

With a last anguished look back at Tabby and Faline, Thomas did as his uncle bade.

* * *
Three strapping Yetis were required to hold down a screaming, kicking, biting Faline. They had underestimated the force of a baby pony, but with Tabby they saw fit to tie her forehooves to prevent violence being done to them.

“And just where are you taking us?” Tabby said indignantly as she and Faline were prodded along by the Yetis.

“You will be held in the house of the other ponies until our chief has been informed of the situation.”

“Held prisoner?!” Tabby shrieked. “This is an outrage! Do you know who I am? I am the Queen of Atlantis! You can’t hold me prisoner!”

“The Queen of Atlantis?” The younger Yeti started perceptibly.

“Hmm. This changes matters,” the older one agreed thoughtfully.

“Yes,” Tabby said, pleased that she was finally getting the respect she deserved. “Needless to say, it was a terrible breech of conduct on your part treating me like this, but I may be inclined to overlook it if...”

“Take her to the barrier cell,” the older Yeti cut her off, pointing a long arm towards the mountain side of the village. “The little one can remain with the other prisoners.”

“What! This isn’t fair! What do you think you’re doing, treating a foreign dignitary like this?! A barrier cell, I can’t believe it! They’re putting the Queen of Atlantis in a barrier cell! What is a barrier cell, anyway?”

The older Yeti shook his head as Tabby was carted off by some more muscular Yeti guards. “It won’t do to take chances with a Queen of Atlantis. There’s no telling what they might do with those magic powers they have.”

“Yes,” the other agreed solemnly.

Meanwhile, the other Yetis dragged Faline off in the opposite direction. Faline had settled down and was being more annoying than physically troublesome with all her questions. “Me know a Bwigfoot, but nwever sween a Yeti before. Is it twue that ‘ou are enwightened Bwigfeet? Thwat’s what my gwanpwa says. Are all of ‘ou white? Cwould you dwye your hwair? I thwink a pwurple Yeti would be nice. Hey!” Needless to say, the Yetis were relieved when they reached the house of Dietrich and Caprice and were able to hand this talkative disturbance over to someone else’s care. The door was quickly opened and Faline tossed in with no explanation given to the two ponies seated at a table in the main room.

* * *
“There’s some sort of a commotion outside. Something’s got them riled,” the aqua stallion noted, peering out the window. “I wonder...”

“Oh, don’t think of trying another escape! You know what they did to you the last time!” the beige unicorn that was with him cried, setting down the piece of mending she had been working on to help out Jeeka, one of the Yeti matrons she had befriended during her eight year exile.

“Risks have to be taken sometime, Caprice. There must be a way out of this! We’ve already been stuck here eight years, and I don’t intend to live out the rest of my life like this.”

“I do so wonder how Thomas and Elaine are doing,” Caprice sighed, lapsing into a melancholic mood herself. “Just think, Dietrich, we could be grandparents by now!”

And it was at that moment that Faline was tossed through the door and landed in an undignified heap on the grass-covered floor. “Mean ol’ Yetis,” she muttered to herself as she sorted out her position and brushed the dirt out of her hair.

“Wh... wh... who are you?” Caprice gasped, startled, immediately going to the aid of the baby pony.

“Oh, hewwo,” Faline said sweetly, realizing that she was not alone. “Me Fawine. Who’war ‘ou?”

“Faline, what a pretty name,” Caprice mused. “Well, I’m Caprice, and this is Dietrich.”

“Capwice and Dweetic,” Faline repeated. “Okway. What are ‘ou doin’ here?”

“More to the point, little girl, what are you doing here?” Dietrich interjected. “Where are your parents?”

“Oh... awound,” Faline said vaguely. “Mwommy was just cwaptured, ‘ou know. Me don’t know where Dwaddy and uncle went... I thwink adventures are fun,” she finished.

“Why is your family on this island?” Dietrich asked gently.

“Lookin’ for some pwonies I gwuess... are there lots of pwonies awound?”

“We’re the only ponies here,” Dietrich said, kneeling down to face her better after exchanging a meaningful glance with his wife. “What are your parents’ names?”

“Mmm... Mwommy and Dwaddy,” said Faline proudly.

Caprice hid a smile. “Of course. What ponies are they looking for?”

“Mm... Mwommy said something about my gwandparents, but I already hwave thwose, and they are not lost, so I dwon’t get it.” She looked up questioningly. “Do ‘ou?”

“Well, Faline, every pony has two sets of grandparents,” Caprice revealed.

“Oh,” said Faline, frowning in concentration. “So are ‘ou the other swet?”

“It’s possible,” Dietrich murmured.

“Tell us about your parents.” Caprice urged.

So the three sat down and got to know each other some more.

* * *
The barrier cell, it turned out, was a dank little cave set into the mountains that framed part of the village. It was guarded by a mystic jewel, however, that prevented magic from being used. Obviously Yetis had a phobia of Queens of Atlantis and their magic powers.

Tabby lamented her sad fate to be trapped in such a cell. She had searched the cavern tirelessly, looking for some natural means of escape since she could not use her magic. Unfortunately for her, however, the plot did not call for her escape, so she hunted in vain for a way out. “I want more action!” she complained aloud as she paced back and forth in the holding chamber, waiting for something to happen.

* * *
“That went remarkably well,” Thomas said sarcastically as he and Colin finally found a safe place to stop and reorganize in the forest. They seemed to have lost any Yetis that may have been on their trail. “Now we only have four ponies to rescue, instead of the two we came for!”

“These things happen,” Colin shrugged, crouched on the ground and rummaging through his sack of supplies. “Now we just need to come up with a plan B.”

“But now they’ll be on their guard and it will be nearly impossible to get in unnoticed a second time,” Thomas ranted. “If we could have had a rational talk with the Yetis in the first place–!”

“Ah, here we go. Another item I never like to leave behind. My Yeti skin!” With a flourish, Colin produced a white fuzzy fur closely resembling the shape of a Yeti. “Well, it’s not a real Yeti skin,” he admitted. “But it’s very close to real. These are very popular costumes in Recotoma, you know. I had to pay a fortune for this, and even then I was lucky to get my hooves on one. I was in town at the peak of their costume celebration, and, well, the Yeti costumes are always the first to go. But you just can’t go to Recotoma and not pick up a Yeti suit! So I found this vendor who offered to sell me one if I was able to obtain this one mystical artifact for him– ”

“That’s very interesting, but how is it going to help in rescuing my family?” Thomas asked impatiently.

“Oh, that’s simple,” Colin said, slipping into the Yeti suit. “What do you think? Heh, heh. Convincing, eh?” He stood on his hind legs and lumbered about in a somewhat accurate Yeti fashion. “Anyway, I’ll escort you into the village as my prisoner. Wow, this is fun stuff!”

“Oh,” said Thomas, already not liking the way this was heading. “And what happens after we’re inside the village?”

“Why, you’ll overtake your Yeti captor, of course,” Colin said cockily, picking up a fallen branch from the ground and roughly carving out a point on the end.

“And then I can evacuate the others, right?”

Colin chuckled. “No, no. Of course not. That’s my job. You’ll be keeping the Yetis busy while I rescue them.”

“Of course,” Thomas said submissively.

“Move along, insolent pony!” Colin brandished his roughly-sharpened stick at Thomas. “To the village! Keep up the pace! Hah, hah, hah!”

* * *
Thomas had no problem in acting the part of an outraged prisoner by the time they reached the village. Colin had taken his role a bit too seriously in Thomas’ opinion. Really, had it been necessary to poke him with that stick so often and heap so many insults on his head? He glared at his uncle as Colin the Yeti explained himself to the Yetis at the gate.

“I have recovered one of the trespassers that fled into the forest,” Colin declared, shoving Thomas roughly forward. “I was close to capturing that dashing fellow that was with him, but he put up an admirable fight and was able to escape. Never have I seen a pony possess such prowess in hand-to-hand combat!”

“I see. An excellent catch,” the Yeti on guard praised. “I’ll take him on into the village for you. Refresh yourself after your strenuous battle.”

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Colin assured him, stepping over the threshold of the gate. “I’d just as easily see this pony to his quarters.” He waved as he went on his way. As a sidenote to Thomas, he added, “Hmm, it’s a little disorientating to come in on the village from a different side.

“You mean you don’t even know where we’re going?” Thomas hissed when they were out of hearing range.

“Not at all!” Colin assured him. “Don’t worry. Following these hoofprints should take us right to the hut.”

Thomas looked down on the ground. Faline’s hoofprints. Faline... what had they done with her?

Colin cleared his throat as Thomas sank into his private reverie. “I would suggest attacking me any time now.”

“Attack you? Oh, right.” Thomas abruptly swung around and knocked the pole from out of Colin’s hooves... hands... whatever. Colin cried out as he fell to the ground. “That was lame, but hopefully no one was watching closely,” he muttered under his breath. Raising his voice, he yelled, “THE PRISONER HAS ESCAPED! HE’S– RUNNING– ” Colin gestured wildly for Thomas to get moving. “EVERYONE ON ALERT! THE CAPTIVE MUST BE SECURED! ALL YETIS PURSUE!”

“A prisoner? Which one? Not the Queen of Atlantis?”

“No, it’s a new one! He was just brought in!”

“I’ll take him on.”

“He’s dangerous! He’s already taken out one of our ranks.”

“He’s headed for the square! Everyone ready themselves!”

“This prisoner will regret the day he thought to overcome the might of the Yetis!”

A flurry of activity broke out after Colin’s exclamation. No one paid much heed to the original guard that the escapee had taken down. After everyone in the vicinity was long gone after Thomas, Colin got himself up from the dust and resumed his path onwards.

Faline’s tracks stopped at a hut not far from where the attack had been staged, so Colin did not have a great distance to go. Without warning he opened the door and burst in on the threesome.

“Wh-what’s going on?” Caprice asked tremulously.

“We have done nothing wrong! Don’t think to punish us for another’s misdeeds!” Dietrich burst out, immediately suspecting the worst from this Yeti.

“I’m here to rescue you. Come with me,” Colin urged, waving them out the door. “We’ve got to move fast.”

”Aren’t you a little short for a Yeti?” Caprice looked at the Yeti skeptically as she gathered up Faline in her forelegs. “Who are you?”

“No time for explanations now. Just follow me.” Caprice and Dietrich exchanged a quick glance over this strange turn in events, but perhaps it would be worth their while to accept the aid of this supposed Yeti who was at the moment securing a rope up over the village wall.

“Excwiting!” Faline said.

* * *
“Colin?” Caprice gasped as the “Yeti” removed his mask after the foursome had removed a safe distance into the jungle. “My brother Colin? But how– why– what is happening here?”

“Why, your rescue, of course,” Colin said matter-of-factly. “What does it look like?”

“Oh... Colin...” Caprice started to get misty-eyed.

“Well, sister dear, I’m afraid our reunion will have to be postponed for a bit longer,” Colin shook his head, getting out of his full costume. “I need to go and get Thomas out. He must have just about the entire Yeti population after him by now.” Colin chuckled and shook his head.

“Thomas? He’s here?” Dietrich interrupted.

“But he’s still in the village? With all those Yetis?” Caprice gasped with concern.

“Oh, I’m sure he’s holding out fine,” Colin assured her, stepping back into the forest. “We’ll be back in a jiffy. Stay right here. You’ll get all the explanations you need later.”

Dietrich shook his head, watching his brother-in-law disappear into the dense foliage. “He’s as foolhardy as ever. But for once I’m glad of it.”

* * *
Meanwhile, Thomas was being pursued through the village by a horde of angered Yetis. But then it occurred to him, why was he running? Maybe Tabby, and Colin, and everybody else in the world thought he was completely useless and a wimp in situations like this. But that didn’t mean that he was. So maybe it was time to stop acting the part!

They had backed him into a corner, an alley between two huts that terminated at the village wall. They all expected an easy catch now. But when Thomas suddenly turned around, the light of battle was in his eyes. The Yetis suddenly found that they had more on their hands than they had bargained for.

* * *
When Colin arrived back at the village, he hadn’t been sure what he had been expecting to find. But what he did find was not one of the possibilities he had had in mind. Thomas would be hopelessly outnumbered, or perhaps captured, or pleading for his life, or...

What Colin did find was that the ground was scattered with unconscious Yeti forms. He let out a low whistle. Had his nephew really done all this? He personally thought Thomas had been rather ineffectual. Wanting to reason with the Yetis, indeed! Well, maybe there was hope for him after all.

Colin found Thomas, a discarded Yeti spear in hoof, fending off a dwindling force of Yeti warriors. Colin leaped into the fray himself, knocking out a few more of their number. “Thomas!” he called. “I got them out!”

“Really?” Thomas was noticeably relieved. “That’s great! Then we can get out of here!”

“Not exactly,” Colin said, directing a glancing blow at a Yeti’s jaw. “Tabby wasn’t with them.”

“Tabby? Not with them? Then where is she?!” Thomas blocked an incoming attack.

“You’ll never... escape... from this island,” an exhausted Yeti panted but continued to fight.

“I think it’s clear who has the upper hand here,” Thomas shot back.

The Yeti just laughed wheezingly. “Do you really think you’ve made a dent in our forces? Even now our reinforcements have been dispatched to comb the jungle until the escapees have been found. You have no hope against us!”

Thomas deliberated for a split second before coming to a decision. “Colin,” he addressed his uncle, “I want you to go back and get my parents and Faline onto the ship. I’ll find Tabby and we’ll follow as soon as we can.”

“You’re sure you want to do it alone?” Colin puzzled.

“Yes! Now go, and get the others to safety! If the Yetis get too close, then you’re to leave without us. Do you understand?”

“If you’re sure,” Colin said skeptically. “But really– ”

“Just go!”

“All right, all right, I’m gone. Catch you later.” Colin shrugged his shoulders and slunk back out of the forest. It’s not how he would have planned it, but... let the kid have his fun.

After Colin left, the village was oddly silent. Thomas could only think of all those Yetis out there searching for his family, and prayed Colin would get them away in time. But now, as for Tabby... what would they have done with her?

Thomas had been nearly everywhere in the village while the Yetis were chasing him, but he realized now that there was one section of the settlement he hadn’t covered, and that was the mountainous region. He quickly headed in that direction.

He silently snuck past the chief’s large hut, where a hushed meeting among the elders was in session. Apparently no one was much concerned with Thomas anymore, as the primary objective was to regain the original two captives; and so as many units as were still standing had been put on that job.

Beyond the chief’s hut Thomas saw that there was a cave set into the mountain. And the cave had bars over the entrance. Like a prison cell. Thomas rushed forward. “Tabby!”

“Well, it’s about time someone showed up to save me,” Tabby started out crossly, but her eyes quickly welled up as she threatened to get hysterical. “I was so scared– and I didn’t think anybody was ever going to come for me– and there was nothing I could do– and– and– ” After a short struggle, Thomas was able to break open the door and she fell into his waiting embrace.

She indulged in a temporary bout of tears before finally wiping her eyes and looking up at him. “Is everyone okay?”

“Yes, but they’re waiting for us,” Thomas smiled.

“Then let’s go,” Tabby smiled back.

While they were on their way out of the village, some of the Yetis that had been knocked out were beginning to regain consciousness. One stood menacingly in their way. “You will not escape!” he growled, lunging forward. Tabby shrieked. Thomas neatly did something cool that put the Yeti out of commission again.

Tabby stared at her husband with starry eyes. “Thomas,” she breathed, “you truly are heroic.”

“I was just watching out for you.”

“No,” Tabby insisted. “All this time I have– I thought– I’ve underestimated you.”

“So I might have some uses after all on adventures like this?” Thomas hinted.

“Oh yes,” Tabby sighed blissfully. “You have– you have achieved true Rio-like heights.”

Tabby didn’t know why he broke out laughing after she had said that, or why he held her to him and kissed her, but she took these things in stride.

* * *
Blah blah blah. The author can’t, or at least doesn’t feel like, writing action Rio-like stuff. So the two made it to the beach, with Thomas saving her from any number of impending danger!!! It is up to the reader to imagine these situations. And hey, if you feel like it, e-mail me so I can include them in the Special Edition!

So, the two came out on a grassy precipice raised above the level of the beach, shrouded by vegetation so the Yetis swarmed across the beach did not see them. Colin’s boat could be seen out on the water; it had been forced to advance outwards since the Yetis were beginning to board crude vessels of their own and paddle out towards it. “However shall we make it out there!” Tabby exclaimed in melodramatic tones. “The pursuing Yetis are almost upon us!”

Thomas appraised the distance to the beach. “We’ll have to swim.”

“But I don’t know how to swim!” Tabby yelled as he pulled her along with him.

Thomas took one quick look behind them to see the quickly approaching Yetis. “Then you’re about to learn how.” Tabby shrieked as he plunged her into the water after him.

Tabby came up spluttering at the side of the boat. “Ooooooh, that was low, Thomas!” She glared menacingly as Dietrich and Colin helped her up on deck

“Well, I didn’t see that there were many options,” Thomas said, following soon after. “And, in light of that, since we are all recovered now, I would suggest picking up the speed,” he directed at Colin after seeing the group of Yeti vessels which were still advancing closer. The superior power of Colin’s boat, however, soon outran them and they were no longer a threat.

And finally a proper family reunion could take place! GROUP HUG!!! Sappy lines were exchanged between brother and father and mother and son. Tabby sat on the sidelines with Faline, feeling rather lost and insignificant. And wet.

“So why is it that the Yetis were so obsessed with keeping you captive?” Thomas asked when all the preliminary sappy stuff was over.

“Oh, well,” Dietrich smiled ruefully and brushed off the topic. “It’s a long story, but in short the Yetis didn’t approve of my curiosity. Right now, though, there are more important things I’d like to catch up on.”

“Yes,” Caprice said, with arched eyebrows. “For example, it would appear that you have neglected to introduce us to your lovely wife.”

“I’m sorry,” Thomas said contritely. He turned and lifted Tabby to her hooves. “Mom and Dad, this is the most amazing mare in the world, my wife Tabby. And this is our daughter, Faline.”

“They already know me,” Faline said.

“This is a formality,” Tabby explained.

“Fowmality,” Faline repeated.

At this point Colin excused himself from the reunion and slunk into the cabin. He had already had his fill of family news.

“Hello,” Tabby said, turning back to her in-laws, and feeling a bit uncharacteristically shy. “I... I’m glad that you’re back.”

Dietrich smiled at her. “And we’re glad to be back. Especially with all the new members of the family.”

“Yes, we are so pleased to find we have a second daughter!” Caprice beamed, readily embracing her. “I had so hoped that Thomas had been able to find someone to share his life with. And I know we’re going to be great friends. We’ll have a comfortable coze later, shall we?”

“And speaking of which,” Dietrich said, turning back to Thomas, “how is Elaine?”

Thomas paused before giving them the news. As the youngest of the family, Elaine had always been protected and coddled. He didn’t know how his parents would react to know that she was now in the care of someone else. “Elaine... is married.”

“Elaine? Our little Elaine is married?” Caprice’s hooves flew to her throat in shock. She could barely pronounce the next question: “Who?”

“Is he dependable? Trustworthy?” Dietrich was just as anxious to know.

“Our little Elaine...” Caprice repeated faintly.

“His name is Alan Morrow. His family is from Forest Brook, but he works in Dream Valley at the new publishing firm. His character is impeccable and he and Elaine are very much in love,” Thomas assured them.

“Morrow? Do you know his parents’ names?” Dietrich demanded.

“I believe they’re Caitlin and Blair.”

Dietrich’s face cleared, visibly relieved. “Ah. I knew Blair when we were boys. It’s all right, Caprice. I’m sure any offspring of Blair is a fine match for our Elaine.”

“I do hope so,” Caprice sighed. Then here eyes brightened at a sudden thought. “Have they any children?”

Tabby shook her head. “They were just married in May.”

“Oh,” Caprice said, who wouldn’t have minded having some additional grandchildren already. “Well, what about you and Thomas? Does Faline have any siblings?”

“So far Faline is an only child,” Tabby said smoothly. “But in May to June there will be a second.”

Caprice clapped her hooves in delight. Dietrich voiced his congratulations. Thomas stared openmouthed.

What?” he echoed, the import of those words slowly sinking in. “A second– you mean you’re– when did you– why didn’t you– ”

“I went to see Toby a few days ago, and I was going to tell you on your birthday; but then this adventure came up, and I knew you wouldn’t let me come if you knew because you are so very boring. So I put it off,” she said sweetly, smiling at him.

Thomas wasn’t pacified. “You idiot! You have to take care of yourself! Of both of you! I may have let you take some liberties when Faline was on the way, but you need to become more responsible! Why, do you have any idea what could have happened– Tabby– are you listening to me?!”

“Of course,” Tabby said, turning her attention away from Faline. “But I really think you’re over-reacting. I don’t see what a little family outing–“

”That’s just it, you’re not taking this seriously! I don’t know what you were thinking–“

”Really, that’s just not fair! I do take it seriously! Why, if you knew what I could have done to those Yetis...”

“That’s not the point! All these risks you take–“

Risks? I hardly call them risks! What, am I just supposed to stay at home and do nothing until May?”

“Quite frankly, yes! Since whenever you step outside you’re getting into some kind of trouble– ”

“Now that’s an exaggeration! I hardly ever– and besides, you’re the one that tossed me into the water like that with no regard to my well-being!“

”And if you’d had some common sense you wouldn’t have been there to begin with! Is it so impossible for you to use a little discretion?”

“I hate discretion!”

“Exactly the problem! You are such a– a– ”

“An idiot? Yes, I know, and I like being an idiot! But– ”

Caprice linked forelegs with Dietrich and smiled. “They do love each other very much,” she sighed happily as the boat sped on its way home.



All right, there are some parts of this story that I really don’t like how they turned out. Oh well, someday I’ll write the special edition.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Silent Are the Bells
by Sugarberry (Sugarberry@NematodeMail.com)


Chapter 10 of 28
A Blessed Event


When Brietta noticed that Shayla was finding it difficult to keep her eyes open, she tiptoed out of the room and hunted up her mother, finding her in the kitchen with Anna. “Any sign of the adventurers yet?” Brietta asked, grabbing a coffee cup for herself. The stallions and foals were still out on their snake hunt.

“No. Our peace is guaranteed for awhile yet,” Anna retorted.

“Is Shayla resting?” Lena wondered.

“Yes, and it’s the best thing for her. She lets Flynn run her ragged.”

“Once the new foal is born, that one will get set down a peg or two,” Anna predicted.

“What are you preparing for supper?” Brietta sniffed the air and turned toward the oven. “It smells great!”

“Lasagna. That crew that went out to roam the land will be mighty hungry when they get back.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“Your mother and I have everything under control, sweetie. You just enjoy the day.” So saying, Anna went back to her preparations.

Lena looked at her daughter with a grin. “Having second thoughts about not going with the stallions?”

“Why do you ask such a thing, Mother? Of course not!”

“Oh, I just thought you were straining to hear voices coming home,” Lena said matter-of-factly.

“And your constant glances toward the window,” added Anna.

Brietta knew she was defeated. “If I volunteer to go out to the garden and pick a bouquet of fresh flowers for the table, you’ll interpret that as further proof, I suppose?” she said as she went to get the kitchen shears.

“Which one you’re pining for is what I’d like to know,” Anna said bluntly, tossing her head.

“Why, Kent, of course; he and I have become very good friends!” She smiled at the cook and her mother; and, picking up a woven basket, the young mare swept out the kitchen door.

Once in the garden with the fragrant and colorful flowers, Brietta took the time to smell the roses, literally. And in so doing, she contemplated Anna’s jibe. Which one, Dorian or Sloan, held her heart? Dorian was definitely the one who could cause her to feel as lighthearted as the wren that sang to her from the apple tree; but Sloan was her first love, and he still held a power over her– if he had cared to exert it.

She shook her head, and got down to the business of cutting a variety of the flowers that bloomed under her mother’s care; her favorite type of bouquet was a mishmash of colors and shapes and greenery– a riot of nature’s floral bounty– and she searched out the choicest of the blossoms so that the flowers would remain fresh and vibrant. Her basket was nearly full when she heard the sounds that she had been waiting for and turned to watch the cavalcade as it approached.

Conrad and Clarence were in the lead, deep in conversation, followed by Aiden and Sloan; Sloan was carrying a sleeping Flynn. Dorian was straggling behind with Kent’s hoof in his while Chad and Todd flitted on the edges of the group so as not to miss anything that might be said by any of its members. Brietta watched in complete silence under the shade of the apple tree near the garden and decided not to intrude on the apparent camaraderie that existed so serenely.

She had not moved, but something caught Dorian’s attention; he looked her way, breaking off his route to come in her direction while the others, closer to the house, continued on their path. The stallion grinned as he approached her, and Kent began babbling.

“We saw a snake, a big one!” His eyes were round with excitement. “And Grandpa says it’s the granddaddy of all those snakes that used to live in the pit but not any more because it’s too full of rocks.” The foal flushed with pleasure as he recalled the size and colors of the snake.

Brietta mouthed the expected praise for such a specimen as they had seen, but she asked Dorian doubtfully. “Did you really find one where Father thought the fabled pit might be?”

“Right on the mark,” stated the stallion. “He was curled up on the rocks just as one might imagine a snake to be who has complete authority in his domain. It’s too bad you missed him, Brie. He was resplendent.”

“He was really neat, too,” added Kent. “He watched us and then slithered away.” The foal waggled a foreleg in the air in an undulating motion with one hoof while keeping a tight grip on Dorian’s hoof with the other. Brietta realized that for all his bravery, the foal had been unsettled enough by the snake to warrant his hold on someone who could protect him if the need arose.

“Playing the part of the flower maiden today?” Dorian quizzed, eyeing her basket of blossoms as they turned and headed for the house. “You do realize that there could have been a snake under any of the plants that you were plucking.”

“The thought did run through my mind,” she grimaced. “I did see a slimy green inchworm; that was enough for me.”

“This one?” Dorian asked, reaching a hoof to her mane and coming away with a particularly repulsive-looking representative that wriggled energetically until the stallion dropped it onto the grass.

Brietta made not a sound– which was to her credit, Dorian thought gleefully. She did, however, hand the basket of flowers over to his care, a shiver running perceptively through her body. She walked into the kitchen, told Anna that she had picked the flowers for the bouquet but would appreciate it if she, Anna, would arrange them as she, Brietta, did not feel especially up to it, and slipped upstairs to her private bath to cleanse herself of any trace of contamination that she had suffered. Her skin felt creepy, and it was not until she had washed herself thoroughly and combed her hair that she felt safe again. She followed up with a generous spray of cologne, muttering to herself for the wiggly things to survive that if they could.

Hearing sounds of activity, Shayla had awaken from her nap and was stretching as Brietta returned to the bed chamber. “Are the boys home?” she queried through a yawn.

“Yes, all safe and sound. They saw a snake, so they’re all content.”

“And how was Flynn behaving?”

“I only saw him a moment, asleep in Sloan’s forelegs. I was in the garden cutting flowers and had to wash up; supper should be ready any moment now.”

The two mares went down the stairs and found that the stallions and Lena had retired to the patio until the meal was served; Clarence was overseeing the wash-up of the colts, Flynn included. His eyes had opened, Lena said, as soon as Sloan had put him down on the bed.

Shayla joined the stallions to thank them for watching over her son and showing him such a pleasant afternoon while Brietta checked in with Anna to see if she needed any help. The cook looked at her with merry eyes. “Dorian told me why you wanted no more to do with those flowers. He put them into a bouquet for you.”

Brietta eyed the arrangement critically but had to admit that he had done a decent job; she switched several blossoms, however, just to give it her personal touch, while she complained to Anna. “Why do all the wriggling, squiggly things have to search me out?”

“I guess they know a soft touch when they see one. Here, take this basket of biscuits into the dining room; then announce supper.”

The meal was met with enthusiasm by all the ponies and was accompanied by much cheerful talk about the history of Whitehall Place and the surrounding area. Brietta thought to herself that it was a lesson on the past that the colts would remember much longer than any of the history lessons they received at school as their alert faces could attest.

Shayla, Brietta noted, was unusually quiet throughout the repast and let it be known as soon as the meal was finished that she intended to start for home immediately, causing Flynn to break into tears because he did not want to part company from his newfound companions. The foal was subdued, however, when he realized that Sloan and Dorian had both volunteered to accompany him and his mother back to town; he may have to lose his young friends, but he would have the sole attention of the two accommodating stallions who had proved themselves to be grand company throughout the afternoon.

There was one interval before Shayla and her troupe left that Brietta had a chance to talk to Dorian privately, and she made the most of the opportunity by asking him to escort her to the anniversary dance for Kelli and Egan. Dorian, admitting to not knowing either of the ponies, was happy nonetheless to accept the invitation on the spot.

* * *
Several hours later, Brietta was curled up on the couch reading a book when she became vaguely conscious of the phone ringing several times and her father’s voice answering it. Something in the tone of the conversation caught Brietta’s attention, and she set the book down and went to the den where her father and Conrad were sitting.

Aiden smiled at Brietta as she came into the room, but Brietta noted that there were worry lines across his forehead as he took the receiver away from his ear and said, “Brietta, it’s Dorian; you might want to talk to him.”

Wonderingly, her heart beating faster, Brietta took the receiver from her father’s hoof. “Dorian, what’s going on?” she asked breathlessly into the mouthpiece.

His news astounded her. “Shayla’s at the hospital; she’s in labor.” He went on to tell her that the mare’s pains had obviously started even before they had left Whitehall Place, but not seriously enough for her to take them as the real thing. But on the trip back to town, the pains had become more frequent and stronger, so that Sloan and Dorian had convinced Shayla to let them take her directly to the hospital.

“She’s not due yet for another two weeks.”

“Tell the foal that.”

“How is Shayla doing?” Brietta wanted to know.

“Dr. Finella was on duty, so she’s with Shayla now. Sloan was able to reach Shayla’s parents, but Derry doesn’t seem to be back in town yet.”

“Where’s Flynn?”

“He’s here, fast asleep. His grandparent’s will see to him.” Brietta heard voices in the background as the stallion paused. Then his voice came back. “Finella was just here to find out if Derry has been located yet; she says it looks like a long night ahead. I’m going to wait here with Sloan at least until Derry shows up.”

That decided it for Brietta. “I’m coming in, too.”

“There’s nothing you can do.”

“Maybe not, but I won’t be able to do anything here, either.”

When Lena heard the news, she would have it no other way than for her to accompany Brietta to the hospital; neither mare would listen to Conrad and Aiden’s common sense notion that a simple phone call would alert them to the delivery of the foal much more conveniently than the two of them marching off in the gathering darkness to gain nothing but a sleepless night. But their words fell on deaf ears, Lena reminding them that Shayla was like one of the family and Brietta reminding them that she had missed Flynn’s birth completely and wanted to be a part of this new life coming forth.

* * *
Arriving at the hospital, the mares were met by Dorian who fielded their questions as best as he could. “Nothing has changed; it’s a waiting game; Finella looks grim, but she says that everything is proceeding well. Derry didn’t arrive yet. Flynn was taken to his aunt’s house.”

When they reached the waiting area, Sloan came immediately to Brietta while Lena lent her support to Shayla’s parents. Sloan guided Brietta to a quite corner while Dorian, as if on cue, absented himself in the direction of the cooler. Brietta searched Sloan’s face and read the concern that dwelt there. “Something’s wrong,” she said.

“The contractions are hard, but the foal isn’t coming as easily as one would hope. Besides which, Shayla is weakening; she’s having a hard time of it.”

Brietta gasped. “Shayla...”

“She’ll be all right; she’ll fight with everything she’s got.”

“She has to get through this... and the baby, too.” Her eyes sought a guarantee from Sloan’s but she found only a mirror of her own uncertainty. “Sloan, she’s got to be okay!”

The anguish on Brietta’s face broke through the stoic guise of the stallion; and, in that moment, he wanted nothing but to protect Brietta from anything that would cause her to feel such sadness. He pulled her into his strong forelegs, her head coming to rest on his shoulder, his hoof caressing her mane. He spoke softly into her ear.

“The three of us have been through any number of scrapes together; with our prayers, Shayla will come through this one, too.”

“We can’t be sure,” Brietta said, lifting her head.

“But keep in mind that she and the foal are in the best of care; there’s no one who can beat Finella.”

The words were no sooner out of the stallion’s mouth when he wished desperately that he had not said them, for Brietta’s body tensed and she pulled back from his, a door slamming between them once more. “Yes, Finella’s the best,” she murmured as her shimmery eyes hardened into cold, hard steel. She left Sloan and slipped off to the chapel to face her God.

How long Brietta knelt there, she did not know; she was lost in her conversation with the One alone who could guide Shayla’s destiny. A rustle beside her brought her out of her meditation, and she glanced to see who had joined her and was grateful to see that it was Dorian. “Any change?” she whispered.

Dorian shook his head. “No word yet. Are you okay?”

The concern for her in his voice was too much for Brietta’s brittle heart; and even though she assured him that she was fine, tears began to course down her cheeks. Dorian offered her a handkerchief and gave her ample time to release her pent-up emotions before he asked, “Do you feel better now?” with a coaxing grin.

Brietta nodded her head, wiping away the last telltale tears with a soggy cloth. “I’m sorry about that.” She offered him a pathetic smile. “I must look a fright.”

The stallion, brushing a vagrant droplet from her cheek, surveyed her closely. “Not half bad,” he remarked teasingly. “Although you look very vulnerable,” he added, taking her hoof into his.

“We’d better get back to check in on Shayla’s efforts,” Brietta said, accepting his support to stand. “Surely there will be some news by now.”

And there was. Derry had finally arrived back from his business trip and was with his wife. That fact alone alleviated some of the tenseness that had been growing among those who were waiting; but as time continued to crawl along with no positive word, the congregated ponies gradually drifted to various locations and sank into their own private world of worry over the events taking place in the delivery room.

When they could take the strain no longer, Lena and Brietta went walking down the quiet hall to the main entrance of the hospital where they could escape the tension for awhile. While Brietta paced across the tiled floor, Lena seated herself on a cushioned bench near a magazine display and absently began to flip through the pages of one of the periodicals. But her words showed that her thoughts were elsewhere.

“This night certainly brings back the details of your birth, Brietta.” She looked at her daughter meditatively.

“I was uncooperative, you have always said,” smiled Brietta.

“I thought you’d never come, and I didn’t see how I could go on; but when your were settled in my forelegs, I couldn’t have been happier. Your father and I thought we were the most fortunate couple alive.”

“And now?”

“Never a single regret, my darling daughter. You’ve always been a delight.”

“I’m grateful that you don’t remember the troubles I put you through.”

Shaking her head, Lena admitted, “Your spirit is what makes you so vibrant; I wouldn’t have denied you that zest for life that you’ve always exhibited... to the fullest.”

“Shayla and I had some good times,” giggled Brietta. “Remember the grade-school play about...” She stopped her reminiscing as Dorian and Sloan came in from outside where they had obviously gone to walk off some of the helplessness they were feeling.

Both stallions noted the more relaxed attitude of the two mares; and Sloan asked for both of them, “Is there good news?”

“No, nothing further. Mother and I were just... trying to lighten our spirits a bit.”

“That’s what we were doing as well,” Sloan replied, sitting himself next to Lena. “I was telling Dorian about some of Shayla’s misadventures down through the years.” As an afterthought, he glanced at Brietta. “And your name seemed to come up regularly.”

Brietta was quick to defend herself. “Not mine alone, Sloan. You were always there to back us up.”

Sloan shook his head. “I wouldn’t agree, Brietta. I was there to prevent the worst from happening, knowing full well that you two would listen to nothing I had to say on the matter. I could only hope to salvage what I could after you and Shayla had done your damage.”

“I must admit, Brie, that you did not appear to your best advantage... if what Sloan was telling me was the truth,” Dorian grinned.

“Undoubtedly,” Lena smiled. “What those two girls didn’t attempt...”

“Mother! You told me not more than five minutes ago that you valued my spirit!”

“Well, time has tempered my memory, I’m sure, seeing how well you have turned out,” Lena admitted, and both stallions fixed Brietta with a look that conveyed the impression that they, too, were pleased with the results.

A change of subject seemed beneficial to Brietta. “Mother, Shayla didn’t have a difficult delivery with Flynn, did she?”

“No, not as I recall; Shayla might say otherwise, of course, having been the one to go through it.”

“Dr. Liam would have been her doctor then, of course,” Brietta said while looking at Sloan. “It’s too bad he’s retired now.”

But Lena would hear none of that. “Dr. Liam was a fine physician, but he knew when it was best for his patients to turn them over to someone younger. Dr. Finella has continued in his practice very well.”

“Would you like something to drink?” Dorian asked, smoothing over what could have been an uncomfortable impasse.

“Some coffee would go good right now,” Lena admitted, and Brietta– feeling uncharacteristically chastised by Dorian’s attempt to keep things harmonious– agreed.

While Sloan and Dorian set off to the snack bar, Lena and Brietta followed at a slower pace. “A doctor with Dr. Liam’s years of experience could be expected to have a more appropriate idea of how to handle any problems that might arise better than a young doctor whose experience is necessarily limited,” Brietta defended her earlier statement out of hearing of the stallions.

“I won’t argue that with you, Brietta; but Finella has proven herself to be quite knowledgeable and capable; I’m sure that Shayla has the utmost confidence in her and rightly so.”

Brietta’s eyes flashed fire, but she refrained from continuing the argument, simply muttering under her breath; and Sloan, unaware of what Brietta and her mother had been discussing, found himself under a dagger-look from the mare which did succeed in causing a smile to curl Dorian’s lips as he observed the scene.

Dorian handed a cup of coffee to Brietta. “No cream or sugar, although your temper looks like it could use some,” he chided.

She turned a dangerous look on him. “Thank you,” she said pointedly. “I’ll be in the waiting room.” She turned and left.

“I suppose we should return there, too,” Lena noted, watching her daughter move down the hall before glancing at the stallions. “The two of you should go on home; someone will need to be awake at the office when business hours convene... morning isn’t that far away.”

“I’d rather stay,” Sloan said simply.

Dorian agreed. “This is as close as I’ve been to a birth; I’d like to see it through to the finish.”

When they caught up to Brietta, she was already in conversation with Derry’s sister who had come to the hospital to find out what progress was being made. Lena had just sat down with her coffee when Derry and Dr. Finella came through the doorway.

Derry’s first words were to Shayla’s parents. “Shayla’s okay, but...” He turned to Dr. Finella to allow her to explain.

The doctor smiled reassuringly. “Mother and baby are doing just fine; however, the contractions are not getting the dilation we need. We’re preparing her for a cesarean section to take the baby.”

“But aren’t there risks?” Shayla’s mother wanted to know.

“The foal’s heart rate is reassuring and Shayla’s vital signs are good; she is, however, exhausted from her efforts so far and needs some assistance. I do not foresee any complications.” She turned to Derry. “We need to get back to Shayla.”

No one said a word after the doctor and Derry were gone; there was nothing to be said. Lena came to Brietta’s side and took her hoof, and both mares and everyone else in the room settled down until the outcome was known.

* * *
Brietta was resting her head on her mother’s shoulder when she became aware of the sound of hoofsteps coming toward the waiting room, and she jerked upright to hear the latest news. It was a smiling Finella who came through the doorway.

“It’s a girl,” she stated, “and she’s a strong, healthy one. Shayla’s complaining of the epidural, but she’s fine.” Finella moved her gaze from Shayla’s parents to search out Sloan, and she sent him a bright smile. “The baby is beautiful.” Sloan went to the doctor’s side to congratulate her on her part in the delivery, but Brietta was so happy knowing that Shayla was safe that she did not even notice. Instead, she hugged her mother.

“Just think, Mother! Shayla has her own little girl now.”

“And Flynn has a sister. I wonder how he’ll adapt to that.”

Brietta laughed. “Very cavalierly, I would presume.” She looked up to see Dorian standing before them, and she offered him her hoof. As he helped her up off the sofa, she grinned at him. “Not a bad night’s work, wouldn’t you say?”

“I wonder how Shayla feels about that.”

“I’m sure she’s exhausted but wonderfully content.”

The father appeared in the room to receive congratulations and to deliver a message from Shayla that she appreciated everyone’s concern and would look forward to visits on the morrow, but for now she wanted nothing better than to sleep.

“What’s your angel look like?” Brietta asked of Derry.

He grinned happily. “Looks just like her mother,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a prettier daughter.”

“And she’s truly strong and healthy?”

“I think Flynn will have his hooves full,” he laughed. “She’s in an incubator right now, but Dr. Finella assures me that it is only a precaution.”

Derry moved on to accept the wishes of others who had waited out this night for the arrival of his and Shayla’s foal; and Brietta moved to the side of the room, realizing just how tired she was now that events were finalized. She was caught in a yawn by Dorian.

“Ready to go home?” he asked.

“Just in time to turn around and come back to town for work.”

“Maybe your father will grant you a reprieve.”

“And what about you, Dorian? And Sloan, too.” She looked around the room. “Where is Sloan?”

Lena had just come up as Dorian responded. “He was going to wait to talk to Finella.”

“I see,” Brietta said, her smile fading. She turned to her mother. “Well, Mother, I think it’s time for the two of us to head back to Whitehall Place.”

“I’ll accompany you,” Dorian stated.

“Thanks, Dorian, but that’s not necessary,” Lena replied. “Brietta and I know the way home.”

“It’s still dark, and you have a long way to go. I won’t take no for an answer.”

Brietta looked gratefully at Dorian. “I’d feel much more comfortable knowing we had a protector,” she admitted. “I’m sure every nocturnal animal within a radius of ten miles will be crossing our path on their way home.”

Relenting, Lena smiled at the two ponies. “I suppose you have a point there, Brietta. And you, Dorian, can spend what’s left of this night in one of our guest rooms. Well, come along, then. We may be able to beat the sunrise yet.”

* * *
Brietta fell asleep as soon as she was snuggled into her bed, but it seemed like she enjoyed the escape of sleep only a moment before Anna came into the room to shake her gently. “Miss Brietta, it’s morning.”

Brietta buried her face in her pillow. “Go away, Anna.”

“Your father told me to remind you that you have an appointment this morning with an important client and you can’t beg off.”

“Tell him... I quit.”

“Dorian is already at the breakfast table waiting for you.”

Brietta’s eyes flew open. “Dorian’s here! I forgot that Mother insisted he spend the night.” She was out of bed in an instant and across the room. “It’ll only take me five minutes to shower and comb my hair, Anna. Tell him I’ll be there shortly.”

Anna smiled and shook her head. Miss Brietta, she surmised, had it bad for this one.

* * *
When Brietta walked into the breakfast nook, she found Dorian there alone. The stallion was quick to leave his chair and come to greet her. “You look... like you could use a nap,” he commented, taking her hoof and leading her to her place at the table.

“I’m numb,” she admitted. “Did you sleep well?” Brietta noted that Dorian looked as energetic as he always did.

.
“Very well, surprisingly, knowing I was under the same roof as you.”

Brietta ignored his comment. “Have you seen the other members of my family?”

“Aiden and Conrad have already left for the office; and Lena, I’m told, is not to be disturbed until noon.”

Anna came into the room with a breakfast tray that succeeded in driving away some of Brietta’s languor. “Anna, you are a dear.”

“This sure beats a stale donut,” said Dorian.

Anna sniffed. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day; and no donut, stale or otherwise, is going to be of any benefit to you.”

“Don’t get motherly on me, Anna,” the stallion grinned. “But I do appreciate your concern.”

“Your grandfoals will be going home today, Anna. You and Clarence will miss them, as will the rest of us,” remembered Brietta.

“Where are the little brats?” Dorian asked.

“They went out with their grandfather for one last try at fishing. They’ll be sorry to learn that they missed seeing you.”

“We’ll have to plan something special for their next visit,” Dorian declared, looking at Brietta as he said it. The mare blushed, remembering how close they had been that day of their fishing trip.

When Anna had disappeared back into the kitchen and the two ponies were enjoying the excellent food interspersed with small talk, Brietta reminded the stallion of the date she had made with him for the coming Saturday. “Egan and Kelli are both nonconformists in their approach to life, so their celebration should be interesting if nothing else.”

“I like them already.”

“Shayla says that only music from our high school years will be played at the dance.”

“Speaking of Shayla, when do you plan to visit her?”

“I have a free hour after lunch, so I’ll run over to the hospital then. I can’t wait to see the foal! And to think that she looks just like her mother! It almost makes me wish... well, forget that.”

But Dorian understood where her thoughts were headed. “Just imagine... if Shayla’s little filly had a playmate of your bearing, Brietta, it would be just like the past revisited.” He paused and looked at her through narrowed eyes. “I can envision you in a motherly role.”

“You’re the one who has an affinity with the foals, which never ceases to amaze me.”

“You say that as if you think I’m some kind of fiend.”

“Oh, no, not at all; it’s just that you’re such a blade that children seem out of your sphere.”

He raised an eyebrow. “A blade, huh?”

“I meant it as a compliment.”

“I’m sure you did,” he said with more than a little irony in his voice.

“And besides, your unorthodox foalhood wasn’t conducive to warm, fuzzy relationships with others your age. I’d think you’d find foals a mystery.”

“Maybe it’s because I missed having a mentor myself in those early years that I find it fulfilling to interact with the youngsters. And they are good company, you must admit.”

“No doubt.” She looked at him quizzically. “Do you keep in touch with any of your friends from back in those days?”

“None of them were really bosom buddies,” the stallion responded evasively while looking at the clock. “If I’m to be on time for my appointment, I’d better head out.”

Brietta finished her orange juice. “I’m ready to go.”

They had not yet left the house when Anna caught up with them. “I packed some brownies for you, Dorian; I made a big batch so I could send some home with the colts.”

“Why, thank you, Anna! That was very thoughtful of you.” His eyes twinkled. “Can you explain how the brownies are more nutritious than a donut?”

Anna did not flinch. “If you don’t want them, just say so.”

As Anna reached for the brownies, Dorian quickly pulled them out of her reach while surprising the cook by giving her a brief kiss on the cheek. “Your gift is well received, Anna; I will treasure every morsel.”

As Dorian and Brietta walked the distance to town, they shared little conversation, both content to enjoy the soft morning air, the intermittent call of joyful birds, and the easy friendship that went beyond constant communication. It came as a shock to Brietta, therefore, when Dorian asked her an unexpected question.

“Will you ever be able to see Sloan and Finella together without getting dejected?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Dorian threw her a sidelong glance. “It was a simple enough question.”

Brietta tossed her head. “I’d hope I’m over being dejected because of either of those two.”

“I wouldn’t have known from the way you act around them.”

“And how is that?”

“Completely unlike your normally charming self.”

Glancing at him ruefully, Brietta did not respond.

“Please don’t be angry with me, Brie. It’s just that sometimes it’s difficult to know where your feelings stand in regard to Sloan. And that makes it uncomfortable for me.”

“I’ve told you before that Sloan and I have been alienated for years now; if my conduct toward him and his... Finella... is cool, I can only blame it on a weakness of character on my part.”

Dorian eyed her doubtfully, but he said no more on the subject suspecting– and rightly so– that pushing it too far would only cause the mare to lash out at him and make his station in her life forfeit.

As they were within the city now, their conversation turned to legal matters that lay before them in the management of their current cases, and no more personal matters were broached.



Chapter 11 of 28
The Dance


It was with relief that Brietta slipped out of the office, leaving behind a beehive of activity. Fortunately for the mare, her schedule was not as full as the other members of the firm on this late summer morning; and she could make her escape to the hospital to visit Shayla and her foal. Even Conrad would not deny her that.

When she arrived at Shayla’s room, she found the mare in company with her husband and was able to extend her sincere congratulations to both parents now in the light of day. “You two must be so proud!” she purred, hugging them both in turn.

“Proud and stunned,” Derry admitted. “If I’d have known what was going to happen with me out of town, I’d have refused to go.” He looked lovingly at his wife. “But all’s well that end’s well, they say.”

“You’re looking extremely well, Shayla, for your long night.”

“Wait until you see her, and you’ll understand why I’m so content.”

“What name have you decided on for your little angel?”

“Keely!” the father replied enthusiastically.

“It means beautiful,” Shayla admitted. “You can see we’re biased.”

“Where is your little darling? Is she still under special care?”

“She’s to join me here at any time,” Shayla grinned. “If you can stay for awhile, you’ll get a chance to see her.”

At that moment, the door opened and a nurse came into the room bearing in her forelegs the foal in question. “The little one is hungry,” the nurse smiled, placing the petite baby girl at her mother’s side.

A blanket covered most of the foal, but Brietta caught sight of a mass of pale green hair and a wrinkled pink face that was most assuredly demanding lunch. Small hooves punched the air disconsolately until the matter was resolved to her satisfaction, and the foal settled down in immediate contentment.

“She’s so tiny!” Brietta breathed, hardly believing how small the newborn was. “How does she compare to Flynn when he was born?”

“Several pounds lighter, but she’ll be a match for him soon enough,” Derry laughed. “He’s already counting on her companionship in all his various pursuits.”

The foal, having satisfied her hunger, was picked up by Derry and handed to Brietta. The mare received the bundle as if it were highly breakable, but the warmth and softness of the precious child soon set her at ease; and she hugged the little one to her in a natural movement that felt immanently right. The limpid blue eyes of the foal were heavenly and the soft hair felt like spun silk. The delicate features of the face were exquisite. Brietta could think of nothing that could be more precious than this wonderful creation. “She’s perfect!” she stated in awe.

“I think so,” Derry concurred, smiling at his wife. “Just like her mother.”

“In looks, definitely, “ Brietta agreed, “but I can’t help but wonder if this fragile little one will be as exacting for her parents as her mother was.”

“With Flynn as her guide, I’m afraid there won’t be much chance for her to grow up as anything but a tomboy,” Shayla laughed.

“Flynn will try to lord it over her,” Brietta observed, “but one look from this angel’s eyes and he will be putty in her hooves.”

* * *
If Monday had been a busy day, the rest of the week was hectic in the law offices of Manning and Associates, so much so that Brietta drew an exaggerated sigh of relief as she closed her office door late Friday afternoon. Conrad, who was with the mare, smiled. “Having second thoughts about joining the business, child?”

“Not at all, but I am glad to see the weekend arrive. Not that it means anything,” she added, glancing at the briefcase in her hoof.

Aiden, waiting in the hall, said, “I’ve been hearing enough about that dance you’re going to tomorrow night to doubt that you’ll be buried in paperwork for the entire weekend.”

A bright smile lit Brietta’s face. “It’s going to be wonderful fun!” She sighed again, this time in anticipative pleasure. After a week immersed in legalities, the mare needed a night away from any complicated matters.

* * *
Dorian had called for Brietta at the appointed time on Saturday evening and presented her with a fragrant corsage of red roses which she wore on her left foreleg; the two were now at the old high school gymnasium that had witnessed numerous such gatherings over the years, but usually with a younger crowd. Tonight the room was filled with an assemblage that, for the most part, was at least twenty-five years old; it came close to being a class reunion for the schoolmates of Egan and Kelli.

Enjoying herself immensely, Brietta renewed old acquaintances– introducing so many ponies to Dorian that he was beginning to get light-headed– and met new faces that her years away from Whitehall had caused her to miss. When they had finally bumped into Sloan and Finella, Dorian was grateful for a chance to talk to ponies he knew well.

“I thought I had met a goodly share of Whitehall’s inhabitants until tonight,” he complained.

“As a fair share of them have needed a doctor’s guidance through pregnancy, I feel right at home,” grinned Finella.

A pony who was obviously a former classmate of Brietta’s came on the scene. “Brietta! Sloan! It’s great to see you!”

“Jared,” laughed Brietta. “I thought you were settled in Capital City.”

“I am, but there was no way I was going to miss this party! Hey, I want you to meet Hannah, but I left her over at the snack bar.” He took Brietta’s hoof and motioned for Sloan to follow, leaving Dorian and Finella to their own pursuits.

“Those two are in their element tonight,” Dorian said, nodding his head in the direction Sloan and Brietta had disappeared.

“They’ve obviously shared a lot of memories connected with this group,” Finella smiled.

“I don’t think I’d look forward to an assembly of the ponies I went to school with,” admitted Dorian, scanning the gathering of cheerful faces partying around him with a wary look.

Finella scrutinized him through heavy lashes. “That sounds ominous.”

The stallion shrugged his shoulders. “Let’s just say that my presence among my old chums might make some of them mighty uncomfortable.”

“Now there’s a story I’d like to hear!” laughed Finella.

“You would be mightily bored, I can assure you,” Dorian smoothly belied. He glanced at the couples that were heading for the dance floor. “Shall we join the revelers?” he asked; and at the mare’s assent, he led her to join the dance.

* * *
“We met quite by accident at the grocery store when my cart careened into his,” Hannah explained, “but we found out that our tastes were quite alike, he and I, so we’ve decided to tie the knot.”

The mare looked at Jared with adoring eyes, causing Brietta to giggle. “With Jared’s eye for beauty, I somehow doubt that the crash was an accident.”

Jared’s eyes sparkled. “At least it was a carefully designed accident,” he admitted.

“Our wedding is next month,” Hannah went on. “We’d both be delighted if you two could attend. Your names have come up often tonight, so I know you were good friends of Jared.”

Jared suddenly looked at Sloan and Brietta closely. “I’m assuming you two are married by now with any number of kids.” He looked down at Brietta’s foreleg where rested the red roses.

“School kept us apart,” Sloan responded after receiving a horrified look from Brietta. “Brietta has only been back in Whitehall since late May.”

“What kind of excuse is that? Hannah and I’ll have only known each other for five months by the time we’re married; I do believe the two of you are being a trifle cautious.”

“As lawyers, we have to consider our options very carefully,” Sloan replied, casting a glance at Brietta that made her heart race. This conversation was getting way too dangerous, and she felt that the only safe route was to change the subject.

“I hear that tonight’s entertainment will include some spontaneous performances from some of our own,” she said.

“I’ve heard rumors to that effect,” Jared stated.

By that time, Egan and Kelli were passing by, claiming the attention of the ponies, and Brietta was able to take stock of her situation. She looked over the crowd to find where Dorian had absented himself and located him on the dance floor with Finella which intensified her uncomfortable feeling. Was Dorian going to leave her in the lurch just had Sloan had once done? It was with evident relief that she saw Derry and Shayla arrive, and she excused herself to attend to them.

“I can’t believe you felt up to coming tonight!” she hugged Shayla warmly. “But I’m glad you’re here.”

Shayla studied her friend’s face closely. “You look upset.”

Brietta laughed. “You will, too, when you see what the passage of time has done to some of our compatriots, although everyone is acting as though they were teenagers again.”

Derry guided his wife to a relatively quiet corner where a grouping of chairs made for a comfortable chat; by the time Shayla had been seated, she became the center of attention for a number of ponies who were interested in hearing firsthoof about her recent confinement; and Brietta was once more allowed to float aimlessly across the crowded room, looking as if she no longer found the festive atmosphere to her liking. She had nearly made it to an open outside door that led to a dimly lighted patio of sorts which offered her some fresh air and that boasted a wrought-iron settee and a smattering of chairs when Dorian caught up to her.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he questioned with a grin, although there was some concern in his eyes as well as he searched her sober countenance.

“I need to get a breath of air,” she said, failing to meet his gaze. “It looks cooler outside.”

“I’ll come with you,” he offered, taking her foreleg and guiding her out the door. After she was perched on the edge of a chair, he asked, “Would you like some lemonade?”

Brietta looked at the stallion with a smile. “That would be nice,” she said, grateful for some time alone with her thoughts. As Dorian disappeared through the doorway, Brietta let escape a huge sigh of relief and slumped back into the chair in obvious consternation.

Why, she asked herself, did Sloan not come right out and tell Jared that he was committed to Finella– and had been for the past several years– instead of hinting that the field was still open between himself and Brietta? Why his evasive answers that intimated that Brietta and Sloan were still a couple, just not yet ready to make a commitment? It made no sense, none whatsoever.

She was still searching for an answer when Dorian returned with two drinks in his hoof. He handed her one of those icy beverages, then pulled a chair closer to the one she occupied and sat down. “Ponies are asking for you,” he said, “but I told them you were indisposed for the time being and completely under my care.” He grinned at her. “Other than some sly glances, no one seemed willing to interfere.” The stallion’s lighthearted banter broke through the shell that had surrounded Brietta, and she smiled back at Dorian. “Much better,” he said, taking her hoof in his. “Now, what’s bothering you?”

“You were dancing with Finella; I thought you’d forsaken me,” Brietta prevaricated, trying to keep her voice gay.

Dorian scowled at her. “All the ponies here tonight are your friends; you shouldn’t have a free moment to stand around and mope. Something has upset you.”

Looking down to where her hoof rested in his, Brietta tried to explain. “Some of the ponies here tonight have been out of touch with our lives; they assume...” She could not say the rest and let her unfinished sentence hang in the air between her and Dorian.

As he studied the situation, understanding suddenly washed over Dorian. “They assume that you and Sloan must surely be an old married couple by now... and probably envision a brood of foals around your hooves as well. Am I right?”

She nodded her head in assent and finally managed to look into his eyes. “There’s more,” she said, almost inaudibly. “Sloan made no effort to deny that our relationship is over.”

If that fact had unsettled Brietta, it entirely discomposed Dorian. “What did he say?” he could not help but ask rather bluntly.

“That it is only because of my being away from Whitehall until recently that he and I haven’t... settled down yet.” Brietta saw a hard glint come into Dorian’s eyes at her words, and a frown marred his face for a few seconds before he responded with a squeeze of her hoof.

“Well, how about you and I settling anyone’s doubts, shall we?” he stated, the smile returning. “May I have this dance?” His hold on her foreleg drew her to her hooves without awaiting her answer.

Returning to the crowded gymnasium and allowing the flow of the dance to carry her away, Brietta could not help but regain her earlier good humor as Dorian’s conversation drew her into his light-hearted nonsense which served to calm her; nor did she have time to allow her thoughts to revert to her earlier melancholy as she accepted dance offers from a steady string of spirited stallions, interrupted occasionally by Dorian as he checked on her well-being and met any needs for rest or nourishment.

One of the stallions who came to claim Brietta for a dance was Bram, her friend from the antique shop; afterwards, Bram led her off to make the long overdue introduction to his wife, Keri, and to finalize the dinner invitation that had never yet materialized, Tuesday evening being chosen for the affair.

“Bram tells me that you have no preference for any of our local stallions,” Keri had smiled, “and as my brother will be in town for a few days, it will work out quite well to have you over while he is here.”

Since Brietta and Bram had first discussed a dinner date, Brietta had begun to form a definite preference in Dorian’s favor; but she did not want at this point to upset Keri’s plans and acquiesced to the proposal. She could not quite put her hoof on it, but Keri’s attitude, even though polite and inviting, had a cool touch that made Brietta feel uncomfortable.

Brietta was occupied in a dance with Egan when she noticed that Dorian was again partnered with Finella, a fact that she found disconcerting for a moment as the stallion seemed to be holding the mare much more closely than necessary and to be overly absorbed in what Finella was saying for what even politeness would demand, but then dismissed this show of jealousy from her mind as she next tried to locate Sloan, curious to see with whom he was dancing. She finally spotted him with Hannah. As she watched them, Sloan looked in her direction and smiled a disarming smile that unexpectedly caused her heart to skip a beat and so completely flustered her that she was grateful that the music came to an end and she no longer had to concentrate on the dance steps.

As Egan escorted the mare to the refreshments, they were intercepted by Dorian and Finella; and Sloan soon joined them as well. Brietta positioned herself at Dorian’s side, but the stallion turned to face her with, she noticed, a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “I’ve gotta leave you for awhile, but I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He winked and was gone.

“Abandoned!” she spat in his direction under her breath.

“Hungry?” a familiar voice asked at her side; she swung her head to see Sloan watching her. Finella had gone on ahead with Egan, leaving Brietta and Sloan strangely alone in the crowded room. Feeling somehow assailable, Brietta dropped her gaze from the stallion and began moving toward the refreshment table.

“I’m a little thirsty,” she admitted to Sloan who walked with her. “I haven’t danced so much since my homecoming.”

“We’ll have to make sure you get more opportunities to keep in practice,” he replied matter-of-factly. He had just gotten her a cold drink and one for himself when the disc jockey announced a special treat and the curtains rolled back from the stage revealing a line of stallions, one of which, Brietta quickly noted, was Dorian. It was so like him to be in the center of the action, even in this crowd made up mostly of relative strangers. Jared was there, too, as well as seven or eight others.

The sound of the music left no doubt as to its purpose, and the crowd watching could not hold back their laughter as the stallions went through the motions of a chorus line dance, rather convincingly, Brietta thought as she laughed at their antics until her sides ached while Sloan looked on the entertainment with an expression of acute embarrassment. Touching a hanky to her eyes which were wet with the effects of her overwhelming laughter, Brietta asked Sloan why he had not joined the performers on stage.

“Once was enough,” he admitted a bit shamefacedly.

Brietta looked at him in surprise. “You mean to tell me that you’ve behaved in this lamentable fashion?” She could not imagine this proper stallion ever taking part in such foolish behavior.

“It was at a party at Pembroke, and Dorian pushed me into it. Never again!” he added emphatically.

Looking at him with narrowed eyes, she said, “I’m sorry I missed it!”

“I’m not!” He smiled at her again (twice in one evening!) so poignantly that she had to look away.

The routine on stage ended with a fanfare of drums and a burst of applause from the revelers, many of whom were still convulsed in laughter. Brietta and Sloan were separated as a general milling of ponies occurred as everyone discussed the spectacle, and soon Dorian was at her side once more.

“I’m glad I discovered your secret passion, Dorian, my dear, before hearing about it through the town gossips. Tsk, tsk!” She shook her head reprovingly, but there was no way for her to hide the merriment in her eyes.

“You’re not fooling me; I heard your gales of laughter.” He began guiding her toward the edge of the room where he could catch his breath when the strains of a sentimental tune came over the speakers; Brietta stopped in her tracks, causing Dorian to pause as well. Brietta stood with a dreamy look on her face as the music swept her back to seven years earlier when she and Sloan had adopted this particular song as their special theme.

She felt the years slip away and did not hesitate when Sloan materialized next to her and retrieved her hoof from Dorian’s grasp. “This dance is mine,” he said to Dorian in a low voice and proceeded to draw an uncomplaining Brietta, who seemed to be moving as if she was floating completely unaided by anything of her own doing, off to the center of the dance floor where he encircled her with his forelegs and led her to the sound of the music.

This isn’t happening, Brietta said to herself. I’m dreaming.

Looking up into Sloan’s eyes, Brietta saw the tenderness and– could it be affection?– that dwelt there. The two of them were back in that summer after she had graduated from high school, back before there had been any estrangement between them, back before Finella had destroyed Brietta’s sure hopes. No words were spoken– Brietta was afraid that any sound would break the spell... would awaken her from her dream. She leaned her head against Sloan’s shoulder and lived for the moment, holding reality at bay by concentrating on the present truth: She was in Sloan’s forelegs and he loved her. She did not want the music to end.

Please don’t end! she pleaded from the depths of her soul as she held on to the hope that these past years had only been a long and tiring dream that she had only now woken up from, finding the reality heavenly. She wanted this feeling of euphoria to last forever. With Sloan was where she was meant to be, just as she had known long ago.

But the music ebbed away.

And that was not the worst of it.

As Brietta raised her head to drink in the look in Sloan’s eyes, she heard Finella’s voice, discreet and quite close. “Sloan, I received a page; there’s an emergency at the hospital; I’m leaving right now.”

The magic ended.

Sloan’s eyes broke away from Brietta’s with difficulty; his forelegs dropped away from her, and he was acutely aware of her body stiffening as he turned his attention to Finella. “I’ll walk with you,” he said, his voice as steady and clear as if he had been dancing with a mere acquaintance– and one he was not too attached to at that. He did not look back at Brietta but left immediately with Finella.

Brietta had turned ice cold in the seconds since Finella had spoken, so much so that a shiver ran through her body, forcing her to face her predicament. She looked around and realized that she was standing like a statue amidst the other ponies who were talking and laughing in small clusters since the music had ended. They were not aware, obviously, that her world had just come crashing down around her like it had once before at another dance, in another time, when Finella had first become a thorn in Brietta’s side.

She looked farther afield, wondering where she could go to escape the crowd, when she became aware that Dorian was winding his way through the throng of ponies toward her, a troubled expression on his face; and she knew she could not confront him, not now, not until she had time to recover her senses.

Knowing that she was close to tears, Brietta turned away from the still approaching stallion, losing herself in the assembly until she could slip out the door and disappear beyond the range of the yellow lights that shone much too blatantly for Brietta’s wounded sensibilities.

She found a tree, its rough bark feeling coarse and irritating against her skin; but it was nonetheless real and touchable. She leaned against it for support and let the tears fall, her thoughts running riot as if they would tear her apart.

After all this time, she found that her nerves were raw and susceptible to the touch of the stallion who had laid bare her defenses; the attraction that had existed between them even as foals had intensified, and it had matured even as they themselves had... until suddenly it had been guillotined swiftly by Sloan’s own resolve, leaving Brietta resentful and scarred on a dance floor that fateful night when he had shown up with Finella in Brietta’s place.

She had lived with the emptiness of his loss for so long, and she thought she had mastered its control over her; but once she was caught up in Sloan’s embrace in the dance this evening, she had reverted to the pull of her youthful yearnings and had slipped once more under his spell.

Now, it broke her heart.

* * *
How long he was there she did not know; but when her tears ended and she had quelled the soft sobs that had continued unbidden when she had tried to restrain them, she sensed his presence.

“Brie,” Dorian whispered, his hoof resting on her shoulder. “I’m here for you, if you need someone.” The invitation was barely uttered before it was accepted; Brietta slumped into his forelegs and let him hold her close for several minutes before she spoke.

“I let him hurt me again, just like before and for the same reason. What a fool I am!” She tried to smile; but instead, the tears spilled over once more.

Dorian stroked his hoof through her mane as if she were a foal who had a physical wound that needed healing, and he kissed her forehead before responding. “If I could make you forget so you wouldn’t have to suffer because of him, I would. What can I do?”

Hearing the agony in Dorian’s voice helped to bring Brietta to her senses; it was bad enough for her to feel this wretched; there was no need to drag him down with her. She pulled back from his embrace and succeeded in giving him a tremulous smile. “Walk with me until my red and swollen eyes have time to return to normal; then I can face saying goodnight to Egan and Kelli.”

For a hovering moment it appeared that Dorian would rather kiss those eyes, but he realized that both of them were too susceptible to the temperament of this compelling moment. He released her, and they began moving further away from the remote lights and action to be swallowed up in the dim moonlight.

They walked in silence until their progress was impeded by a hedgerow that outlined the school property. Brietta faced Dorian and asked, “What happened with that dance?”

“I think you would know better than I,” he said evasively, trying not to remember the possessive manner in which Sloan had abducted Brietta from him or the entranced look in Brietta’s eyes as she had blindly followed him, so soon followed by a hollow look of complete renunciation when Sloan had left her standing alone while himself departing in Finella’s wake.

“But you do know Sloan, and you are a stallion.”

“He chose to dance with you, that’s all. You obviously read something more into it.” He avoided her direct gaze.

“That’s not all; and I read no more than what I saw in his eyes.” She stopped, realizing that the sensual vibrancy that had engulfed her at the sound of that particular music and which had also driven Sloan to act as he did would have no meaning to Dorian, nor did she wish to discuss such deep feelings with someone who held a special place of his own in her life. Suddenly, she felt anger toward Sloan as much as pain over his curt dismissal after what had seemed a move toward reconciliation.

“Why did I let him get to me like this?” she exploded, tossing her mane back over her shoulder. “Am I some foolish filly who will swoon over the attentions paid by a gallant stallion as if my life depended on him?”

Seeing Brietta’s change of mood as an opportunity to promote his own interests, Dorian quickly stated his opinion in a fashion that, he hoped, would alleviate any lingering doubts as to her relationship with Sloan, even though feeling a twinge of conscience at undermining his best friend. “You’re not a foolish filly but a very capable– and, I might add, beautiful– mare who can handle her own affairs quite well without any interference from anyone, especially a stallion who doesn’t know how to value what he has in his grasp, as he’s shown time and again; I’d certainly make no mistakes in that area.”

Such a declaration did much to assuage Brietta’s torment; she smiled at the stallion kindly, her good humor returning. “You have stood by me, my champion, and I thank you for it.” She kissed him lightly on the cheek. “And now, if you’ll accompany me back to the hall, we can take leave of our host and hostess.”

If Brietta knew of the restraint that Dorian was commanding to stifle his natural response to that light kiss, she showed no sign of it as she took his hoof and engineered their return to the party gathering, all the while enumerating the names of ponies that she felt obligated to make her adieu.

Dorian, however, influenced by the moonlit night and the isolation of this tete-a-tete, fueled by the love that had been steadily growing since he had first met Brietta, yearned to take her into his forelegs and let her know exactly how much she meant to him; but he held himself in check, partially because he knew that her emotions could plummet again as quickly as they had risen.

Also hanging between Dorian and Brietta was Dorian’s friendship with Sloan; for Dorian, although not willing to admit it to Brietta, had sensed that Sloan had something far more enduring in mind than one sentimental dance. So as it turned out, by the time Dorian and Brietta re-entered the building, both of the ponies had their emotions under control and appeared to be enjoying the party as much as any other of the guests.

Shayla and Derry had long since left as Shayla was still recuperating from Keely’s birth, but there were plenty of other acquaintances that Brietta knew she would not see again until some other occasion, happy or sad, presented itself to reunite them, so it was rather late when Brietta and Dorian finally made their last goodbyes and left for Whitehall Place.

* * *
It was only when Egan and Kelli were themselves departing from the site of their anniversary bash that Egan said to his wife, “You did remember to tell Brietta that Sloan was looking for her, didn’t you?”

Kelli, shaking her head, frowned. “There were so many ponies around when she and Dorian were saying goodnight that I’d hardly have been able to relay the message even if I’d thought about it. Do you think it matters?”

Shrugging his shoulders, Egan dismissed it. “Sloan seemed awfully anxious to get a chance to talk to her, but he surely knows where he can find her; I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“I wonder what’s going on between those two,” Kelli pondered idly. “I always thought that Sloan and Brietta would have been married long before this, yet she seems to be dangling after Dorian; and Sloan makes a feeble effort to maintain a friendship with Finella. Someone should sit Brietta and Sloan down and make them realize that they were destined for each other.”

“No one had to tell us what our destiny was,” Egan grinned at his wife of seven years. “I think Sloan and Brietta can figure theirs out for themselves, too.”



Chapter 12 of 28
The Proposal


The day following the anniversary party was also the day for Aiden and Sloan to depart for a business meeting scheduled for Monday morning in Winthrop. Appearing at the front door after lunch, Sloan, after the usual small talk, glanced toward the sweeping stairway and asked if Brietta would be free to talk to him for a few minutes before he and Aiden left the house. He was obviously disappointed by the answer he received from Lena.

“After church, Brietta went to spend the afternoon with Shayla; they both figured that last night’s dance was a cornucopia of information for them to discuss.” She laughed. “Brietta couldn’t wait to compare notes with Shayla on where the last seven years have taken some of the ponies they went to school with.”

A thin, tight smile was all the response Sloan made, so Aiden added his thoughts. “You must have run into some old friends last night as well, Sloan; you and Brietta always mixed with the same crowd.”

“Yes, it was quite a reunion.” The stallion was not in a talkative mood, however, and next suggested that he and Aiden commence their journey immediately. “There are storm clouds moving in from the west; I wouldn’t be surprised to find the two of us caught in a downpour before we reach our destination.”

Lena bustled to the closet to retrieve an umbrella. “This will protect you from the worst of it,” she said to her husband, noting with approval that Sloan had the foresight to have his own umbrella in possession as well.

The two stallions were soon underway, and if Aiden found that Sloan was even less communicative than ever, he had no way of knowing that the younger pony was mentally upbraiding himself for allowing the previous evening to end the way it did between him and Brietta when his plans had been so much more positive; Sloan found comfort only in the fact that Brietta was, at least, not spending the current afternoon in the company of Dorian, whom Sloan was beginning to find underhoof much more often than was agreeable.

He had no way of knowing what was going on in Brietta’s mind, having missed her when he had returned to the dance to search her out and continue the tete-a-tete that had been interrupted by Finella and again having the misfortune of not connecting with her at Whitehall Place before his departure with Aiden. Every time he tried to make his peace with her, something happened to interfere. It was becoming critical, Sloan reasoned, to set things right.

Regardless of these musings, it was probably to Sloan’s overall peace of mind that he was far from Whitehall and was not to be a firsthoof spectator of the events that would play out in his absence.

* * *
Brietta herself could probably not have explained what her mental state was through this period following the dance. One moment, she was reliving the sensation of having Sloan’s forelegs around her; and the next, she was burying any such feelings under those which surfaced when she remembered Dorian’s final words to her after he had delivered her safely home and had kissed her very longingly: I love you had been whispered so softly that she was not even sure that the words had been truly uttered or if they had just been imagined in the emotion of the moment. The stallion had left her suddenly, whether because of regret in having admitted such tender feelings, or because he did not trust himself to say more.

* * *
Monday and Tuesday for Brietta were consumed with legal duties, so by Tuesday evening she was ready to unwind in the company of Bram and Keri and make the acquaintance of Keri’s older brother, Trey. In her reasoning over the last several days, she had come to grips with both Sloan and Dorian, putting both of them on hold in her mind and getting on with the important matters of assisting clients. Having Sloan miles away certainly made that half of her effort to conveniently slot him away somewhere in the recesses of her memory quite simple, and Dorian was nearly as distant for he avoided any speech with her unless it dealt directly with a business question.

Brietta could only surmise that Dorian regretted having said what she thought he had said, and that he hoped that she either had not heard him or would discount the words if his actions did not follow through. So it was that she went to the visit at Bram’s house with a clear mind, having suitably tied up any stray thoughts of either of the stallions who had claimed her affection in the past.

When she arrived at the neat white home on Western Avenue, she was admitted by Bram and the two were allowed a brief conversation alone.

“Welcome, Brietta!” Bram greeted her. “You remember who used to live here, don’t you?”

Brietta grinned. “How could I forget? Do you ever hear from Colin?”

“I ran into him a year or so ago; he was just passing through town on his way to Cascade. He asked about you.”

Raising an eyebrow speculatively, Brietta made no comment. The class clown, Colin had made it a point to take the formality out of any occasion and to provide the light touch when events became bogged down; and although his sense of humor was welcome, he had the uncanny knack of highlighting a pony at the moment when the greatest amount of embarrassment would be accrued from the effort. Brietta had often been the center of his none-too-kind jokes.

Bram guided Brietta into the living room, filling in the gap in her lack of conversation. “Take a guess on what occupation Colin decided on.”

“Because you’re asking, I can only imagine that it is something completely foreign to his nature, like a bank president or something.”

“No. He has decided that he has a vocation to the religious life.” Bram said no more, enjoying the look of disbelief on Brietta’s face.

“You can’t be serious!”

“That’s exactly what I said to him, but he was totally serious. He’s studying at King of Kings.”

Voices infringed on Bram and Brietta as Keri and Trey came into the room from the kitchen. “How nice that you could join us this evening, Brietta!” Keri enthused. “And this,” she said, turning to the stallion who stood by her side, “is my brother, Trey. He’s spending a few days with us, helping Bram at the shop.”

“Nice to meet you,” Brietta murmured to the emerald green stallion, finding herself being studied rather too closely by a pair of dark, cunning eyes. “So you’re in the antique business as well?”

“Oh, no,” Keri answered for him. “Trey’s an insurance salespony, but he keeps his eyes open for collectibles when he’s on the road and sometimes finds a real gem. Then Bram allows him a commission when the piece sells.”

“Look at this,” Bram said, walking across the room to lift a long, slender glass vase. “Trey picked this up at a little resale store over in Dunklin for a couple of jangles; I’ve had customers willing to pay several hundred jangles for a piece that wasn’t in this good of condition.” His eyes sparkled as he handled the object. “I remember by grandmother having a vase just like this; she sold it at a rummage sale when she was trying to clear some of the clutter from her house.” He ran his hoof over the fluted mouth of the container, a sentimental look on his face. “I’m tempted to buy this one myself.”

“You’ll never get rich that way,” Trey said, the tone of his harsh voice indicating scorn. “The old mare was right; it’s nothing but a bunch of useless stuff. Who needs it?” He sent a raking glance at Brietta as if he had in mind better ways to spend his jangles and his time.

Brietta ignored Trey and crossed to Bram. “It’s a lovely piece, Bram. Mother has a similar one that belonged to my grandmother as well. The value of something like this is beyond price if it brings back special memories.”

“Grandma used to pick whatever flowers were in season for hers: lilacs in the spring, roses in the summer, and cattails in the fall. At Christmas time, she’s have in loaded with pine boughs and bright red berries from some bush or other,” Bram recalled.

“I remember when I was just a foal climbing up on the table to touch the bleeding hearts that Mother had just picked from the garden; they were cascading so wondrously that I couldn’t resist getting a closer look. Needless to say, my handling of the flowers caused the vase to topple.” Brietta grimaced at the recollection.

Bram only grinned. “What was the outcome of that transgression?”

“I heard Anna coming, so I tried to scramble down off the table and ended up falling to the floor; she was so distraught to think that I’d hurt myself that she never scolded about the spilled bouquet.”

“Brat!” Bram winked at her.

Trey had enough of their walk down memory lane. “If you decide to keep the vase, you’ll pay me top price for it,” he interrupted brusquely. “I’ve got to make some repairs on my house, so I need the jangles.”

Brietta returned a secret wink to Bram and steered the conversation in a new direction by asking Trey where his home was located. On learning that it was in Winthrop, she mentioned her father’s trip to that city and his anticipated return this very evening. Trey began to itemize the good and bad points of the city, most of which centered on the quality of food served at the particular restaurants; Brietta listened with polite interest while Bram slouched on the sofa in a bored fashion, obviously having heard his brother-in-law’s ranting enough to know them by heart.

Shortly, Keri announced that the food was on the table; and Bram ushered Brietta to the dining room with Trey trailing behind. Brietta caught sight of a massive hutch of an earlier day that graced the far wall. “That’s the perfect place to display the vase,” she commented, slipping into the chair that Bram indicated for her. “You’ve already collected some wonderful objects,” she added running her gaze over the eclectic array gathered on the dark wooden shelving.

“I collect cruets,” said Keri, glancing quickly at her brother as she said it. “And don’t believe Trey when he frowns upon collecting; he has his own downfall in that department.”

“And what might that be?” asked Brietta, an amused look crossing her face as she peered at the stallion.

Unwillingly, and with a scowl for his sister, he responded, “Action figures.”

“Action figures?” Brietta queried. “Such as...”

“Action Pony, G.I. Ed, Max Iron, Star Battles.”

“I’ve seen those dolls...” began Brietta.

“They’re not dolls!” Trey interrupted, a look of chagrin upon his face. “They’re action figures; there’s a difference.”

“Well, when I was growing up, we called them dolls,” Brietta insisted, looking to Bram for help. “What was that line that you and your buddies used to buy? Even Sloan had a figure at one time.”

“Sloan only went in for Heroes of the World,” Bram volunteered. “They were all the rage back then. I had Bucephalus, and I think Sloan’s was Rosinante; but why he wanted that bony thing, I’ll never know. I also had some of the Star Battles figures and still do, as a matter of fact. And, no, Trey, I’ll never sell them to you.”

Trey had recovered from his vexation by this time and needed to flaunt his acquisitions. “I’ve got the original Luke mint-in-box plus the rest of the line in near mint, only some minor corner rubs. And I also got all but one of the Ed figures.”

“Plus he’s currently buying all the Iron and Action Pony figures that come out,” said Keri.

“I’ll be needing a gift for Shayla’s little colt’s birthday,” mused Brietta. “Do you think a doll– I mean– action figure would please him?”

“Get him the Action Pony Mountain Climber,” suggested Trey. “He’ll love it. I could help you pick it out; just name the time.”

“Thank you, Trey, but I’ll enjoy hunting through the toy aisles to see what else might be available,” Brietta demurred..

“Shayla tells me she has a job lined up for when she’s back on her hooves,” Bram said, turning the conversation on a new course, carrying the meal to its conclusion. The dishes having been relegated to the dish washer, Keri made a suggestion.

“Trey has never been out to the ledge to see the view from there; if we walk out now, we should be in time to watch the sunset.” She looked at her husband with a set expression on her face that bore no argument, so soon the four ponies were headed on this pleasant summer evening in a westerly direction out of town, Keri walking hoof in hoof with Bram, and Trey accompanying Brietta, regaling her with stories of his rather uninteresting, as Brietta saw it, life history.

Soon, and Brietta noted that it was not entirely by chance, Bram and Keri had moved some distance ahead of Trey and Brietta, leaving Brietta solely at the mercy of the stallion’s self-absorbed rambling.

“I once found an original figure in the bottom of a box I picked up for a song, and some stallion in New Pony paid me more jangles than I normally would have made in weeks,” he said, bringing a long recital of his best finds to an end. “Keri tells me you live in an old mansion; I bet there are tons of antiques just sitting around for the picking; am I right?”

“Actually, no. Mother prefers staying up-to-date.”

Trey frowned. “Surely you haven’t just thrown out all the old stuff; it’d be worth a bundle!”

“Most of it went to the restored Garvin House that’s part of the historical museum complex in town.”

“That’s too bad,” Trey scowled. “It’d take a fortune to replace those things.” They walked in silence until Trey asked, “Has the house itself been messed with much?”

“If you mean has the architecture been changed, no, it hasn’t. Whitehall Place even has an original bell tower on top. The house was built to last, and it’s been cared for by a continuing line of Mannings; but we’ve lived in it as a home, not a showplace.”

“I’d really like to see the house sometime,” Trey hinted.

“Oh, look! Bram and Keri seem to be waiting for us,” Brietta said, glad to have found something to divert Trey’s present course.

Bram was watching the approach of Brietta and Trey with a rueful look upon his face, and Keri looked somewhat disheartened. The reason was soon revealed.

“Keri just remembered that she was supposed to call one of her student’s parents tonight; we have to head back home so she can take care of it.”

“I’m so sorry to have to rush off like this,” Keri apologized, “but I’m sure Trey will make sure you get home safely, Brietta; Bram tells me that if you follow the path over there, you’ll reach Whitehall Place easily.” She smiled at Brietta, then glanced at her brother with what Brietta thought was a conspiratorial glance. Bram, however, did not seem to notice. “I’d looked forward to watching the sunset,” pouted Keri. “Brietta and Trey, you’ll have to stay and watch it for me.”

“I’m game if Brietta is,” Trey agreed willingly, grinning at Brietta, a gleam in his eye.

“It was great to spend this evening with you Brietta,” smiled Bram, taking Brietta’s hoof in his. “We’ll have to get together again soon.”

“Well, come along, Bram,” urged Keri, suddenly anxious to get on her way. She pulled her husband after her as they set off back toward town. “Goodnight, you two!”

Bram waved a hoof in their direction as he was propelled down the path; and Brietta and Trey were left to themselves, although not completely alone as there were other ponies enjoying the view from the top of the ledge which provided a fantastic panorama of the countryside for miles to the western horizon. The town of Porter was visible as a foal’s toy city on the plain, the streets in precise lines overshadowed by towering trees.

Their relative isolation, however, prompted Trey to take Brietta’s hoof in his as they turned to follow the path that meandered along the edge of the natural cliff that abruptly dropped to the ground so many feet below them. The steep incline was a rough and ragged display of the base rock that jutted forth in elemental ferocity, highlighted now by the sun’s rays slanting across from the west; Brietta inadvertently shuddered as she gazed down the abrupt drop-off, and Trey took advantage of the reaction to put a foreleg protectively around her.

“As beautiful as this place is,” Brietta admitted, “I’ve always felt nervous up here; it’s as if the world drops away...”

Showing an unexpected perception of her feelings, Trey pointed to a grove of trees that was ahead of them. “We’ll head for those box elders; they’ll give you a feeling of support.”

Upon reaching the trees, Trey cleared a patch of ground on which to sit; and the two ponies made themselves comfortable to watch the splendor of the golden orb of fire as it settled into a nest of chiffon clouds that took on the rich shades of orange, pink, purple, and blue, the natural light infusing them with vibrant color. As an added bonus, a late-flying gull sailed across the picturesque scene, adding his black silhouette to the panoply before them.

“This is beautiful,” Brietta murmured. “I’d forgotten how pretty the sunset was from this vantage point. And look at the sun now; it’s just ready to disappear!”

Trey, however, was no longer watching the sunset; he was intent on Brietta’s profile as she enjoyed the display of nature at its finest, and he found his own vision rather lovely. He moved closer to the mare just as Brietta turned to him to observe his impression of the vista which was now outlined in vivid gold, her eyes reflecting the glorious spectacle of the sky; she found herself gathered into an unexpected embrace and kissed so firmly that she was unable for some seconds to make a sound.

When she finally was able to protest verbally, she also pushed the stallion away and attempted to get to her hooves; Trey only laughed and reached out to claim her foreleg, effectively stifling her effort to put some distance between the two of them; but when he leaned toward her for another kiss, she delivered a resounding slap to his face that startled Trey enough that he released his hold on her, and Brietta found herself being forcefully pulled away from him by some unknown force that caused her to gasp in further alarm.

The force lifted her to her hooves and retained a grasp on her as Dorian’s voice chillingly cut through the gold-tinged air. “The mare obviously doesn’t want your attentions, buddy.” Dorian allowed himself a quick glance at Brietta, asking, “Are you okay?”

“Yes... now,” she managed to croak.

Trey was by now on his hooves and stood menacingly facing Dorian and Brietta. “She’s with me, so I suggest you butt-out, mister.”

“Brie,” Dorian addressed his words to the mare at his side, but his blazing gaze did not leave Trey’s face, “do you want me to leave you here with him?”

“No, Dorian! Please, take me home!”

“I was just about to do that,” Trey maintained.

“It didn’t look that way to me,” retorted Dorian. “The mare’s made her choice; you’d best get on your way.”

Trey glowered at the stallion but concluded that as he was in unfamiliar territory, it might be best to cut his losses now before he got himself into deeper trouble. With a last defiant look at Dorian and a mumbled, “I didn’t mean to upset you,” to Brietta, he set off down the path.

Alone in the falling dusk, Brietta leaned against Dorian’s strong shoulder and sighed. “Thanks for coming along when you did.” Then, realizing the uncanny chance of him being in the area, she lifted her head to face him and asked, “What were you doing out here?”

“I had a late meeting with a client from Porter and walked with him part way, glad to get some fresh air. I thought I recognized you as I was coming back up the path, but it wasn’t until you hauled off and smacked that jerk that I was sure.” He looked at her with worried eyes. “Why were you here alone with his sort anyway?”

“Let’s walk while I explain; I want to get away from this spot.”

With the sky radiating orange streaks across the darkening sky, Dorian and Brietta began the walk home to Whitehall Place as Brietta told Dorian what had transpired that evening, including Keri’s sudden departure with Bram, leaving her alone with Trey. “You know the rest,” she ended.

“This Keri is the orange mare with yellow mane that I met at the anniversary party?” Dorian asked.

“Yes; why?”

“I’ve seen her in Colly’s company several times; they’re quite good friends.”

“So Keri could be trying to help Colly get a clear field for you; that would explain why she tried to maneuver Trey and me into a friendship.”

“I’ll talk to Colly about this tomorrow.”

“No, Dorian. She’s been with Father and Conrad for years now, and they’re both quite satisfied with her work. If you approach her with your accusations– and we don’t know if they are true or not– she might get in a huff and quit or something.”

“Well, I don’t like it, not one bit. Coming across you in the forelegs of this stallion tonight was a shock I’ll not soon forget; if it had been Sloan, that would’ve been bad enough... but this guy was a complete stranger to me. How many other stallions are out there that Colly and Keri will try to match you up with?”

Brietta could not help but giggle. “You’re overreacting, you know.”

“Am I? Every time I turn around, I see you with Sloan or someone else. The only answer as I see it is to marry you!” he replied with feeling.

“That’s rather an extreme solution, isn’t it?” Brietta responded in a teasing tone.

“Yes, but it’s a good one at that.” Stopping on the path, Dorian turned to her in the lowering light, his voice now soft and thick with emotion. He took her hoof in his. “Marry me, Brie.”

Stunned at the serious look on the stallion’s face, Brietta could only gaze at Dorian in astonishment; then, with an intake of breath, she gasped, “You’re serious.”

“Of course, I’m serious. I love you! I’ve loved you since I first saw you walk into the dining room at Whitehall Place the night of your welcome home dinner.” He looked into her eyes as if he were reading her innermost thoughts. “Do you love me?”

The question was so unexpected that Brietta, whose mind was already reeling, could only stare at the stallion with wondering eyes as her own emotions ran wild. Did she love him? She certainly enjoyed being in his company; they seemed to have common values and interests; she knew that her day was always brighter when he came into her presence– he could make her smile with a word or a touch. Was that love?

She remembered how safe she had felt when Dorian had showed up to defend her from Trey, how she knew she could trust him with her very life, how comfortable she felt in his company. Love or not, she was sure that she would be happy to be his wife, to be the one in whom he could confide, the one he would turn to, the one responsible for his happiness. In a brief flash of clarity, she knew her answer.

“Yes. I love you.”

“Will you marry me?”

“Yes, I will.”

Brietta was engulfed in a hug and a kiss that threatened to drown her, but she had no desire to be rescued from it; she had never been so perfectly happy, she realized. When Dorian released his hold on her enough that she could look upon his face, she saw her own joy mirrored back at her.

“This was meant to be, you know. We were meant for each other,” Dorian said softly.

Brietta could not disagree.

* * *
When the couple arrived back at Whitehall Place, they found Aiden back home from his business trip; when they walked into the living room where Aiden was sitting with Conrad and Lena, he advised Brietta that Sloan had hoped to see her but had missed her again.

Brietta, caught up in her own happiness, did not give Sloan a second thought. “Father, Mother, Grandfather... Dorian asked me to marry him...”

“And Brietta said yes!” Dorian finished proudly, looking at his beloved as if she was the only other pony in the world.

The recipients of this news were momentarily stupefied, Dorian and Brietta being treated to three entirely blank faces that slowly realized the import of the announcement to which they had just been treated. Lena was the first to recover her composure; she stood and crossed to her daughter, giving her a hug, then beaming at her with genuine satisfaction.

“I can see you’re very happy with your decision.”

“Of course, Mother; I wouldn’t have accepted if I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do.”

Lena then hugged Dorian. “I’ll trust my daughter to your care on your wedding day; I expect that you’ll not let her down.”

“How could I when I love her as much as I do? I’m totally committed to her happiness, I promise you.”

Aiden, too, was delighted to find that Brietta and Dorian were willing to embrace a lifetime of love together, and he gave them his blessing. Conrad, although impressed by their seemingly bright circumstances, still could not wholly hide a glimmer of worry over the news. He knew only too well that the perfect life that beckoned so winningly at this moment for the two of them could be shattered in a heartbeat, as his had been when his wife had died so young.

He could not deny the joy that diffused like an aura of light around his granddaughter and Dorian, but Conrad’s cautious nature prompted him to say to the stallion, “Brietta’s happy for the moment; if I ever see that light go out of her eyes, you will have me to face.”

Dorian, with a glance at his future wife that rivaled adoration, was quick to assure Conrad. “I’ll never give her reason to regret the choice she made tonight, sir.” And caught in the euphoria of the unplanned development of the evening, he wrapped Brietta in an embrace of perfect elation.

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***Our Halloween story will be sent in a special holiday edition of MLP Monthly on October 31st! If you have a Halloween MLP story you’d like to see included (hah-hah, I crack myself up sometimes!), e-mail me at TabbyMLP@aol.com.
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