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My Little Pony Monthly Issue 81 (December 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 81
December 2003
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Contest!

Hoorah! Check out our list of winners from last month!

*garej* (garej@mylittlepony.fsnet.co.uk)
Berry Brite (swanson@swnebr.net)
Chandra Forshey (ChandraMic@aol.com)
Cherie (travkru1859@aol.com)
Melody (markp@gil.com.au)
Nibbles666 (kakyuuouhi@yahoo.com)

Mr. Kidoo was Miss Hackney’s old beau. For the longest time I called him Mr. Skidoo but recently when I was re-watching the Tales series I realized there was no “S”... what a disappointment for me to find that I’d been wrong all this time!
I am a bit disappointed, however, that the number of submissions dropped so low again. Is everyone scared off by the prizes? Well, you can always opt out of being in the drawing if all you want is the webpage graphic. ^.^ C’mon, I want to keep interest HIGH!
But now, to announce the lucky winner of the Snowflake nail enamel:

Chandra Forshey! Yay! Chandra, please e-mail me your address and I’ll send out your prize ASAP.

Now, what does our box of AVON products have in store for the month of December? Ah, here is a nice holiday item which Gingerbread is all in raves over. It’s gingerbread-scented lip balm! Not only is it a necessity in these cold months of chapped skin, but it also smells nice! Gingerbread gives it her full endorsement. Or, if you’re a guy, you’ll have a chance at a favorite toiletry item of the Big Brother Ponies: Wild Country soap-on-a-rope! To enter the contest, answer the following question correctly:

What cereal had the Baby Christmas Pony/Baby Stockings/whatever-you-want-to-call-her mail-in offer?

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

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

THE RULES! *ANYONE* can enter. That means anyone as in anyone. Even if you’ve already participated in the past, you can enter; in fact, I encourage you to do so. You don’t even have to be a subscriber of MLP Monthly in order to enter. But if you’re not a subscriber, you’re probably not even reading this. ^.~
However, now that we’ve introduced *real* prizes, we will be putting a limit on how many times you can be entered in the drawing for that. If you’ve already been selected to win one of our prizes in the past, you can’t be entered again– BUT, you can still participate and get your webpage graphic! So just because you’ve won something in the past doesn’t mean you can’t have any fun at all with our contests anymore. And, of course, if eventually all contest participants are ones that have won a prize, it’s fair game for everybody again!
On the contest form at http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm, you will be able to select your gender so we’ll be able to determine which prize you get. Or, if you’d prefer to be opted out of the prize drawing, you can select that on the form as well. You’ll still get your webpage graphic, however.
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Survey!

Just two survey entries... well, at least it’s better than zero! You told us what your families thought of your pony-collecting hobby...

Arenafay (cibifirekitty@cox.net) says...
Well my family had to deal with my older sister and as long as they are in my room and not all over the house they happen to be okay with it.

Pika-Chan (mnjiricek@earthlink.net) says...
My mom thinks it’s cute that I still have all my originals and that I still collect- after all, she has a huge collection of Beanie Babies! My dad grins at me when I get a new one in the mail, but is confused about the concept of customs and thinks I’m spending too much money on those. My brother just rolls his eyes, but is nice enough to listen when I explain all the things discussed on the MLPTP. After all, I listen to his discussions of DDRSTL (a message board for DDR players in St. Louis) and all the newest accessories he’s gotten for his chararcters in Virtua Fighter! ;)

And now we have another survey question to answer!

What’s the best My Little Pony-related Christmas present you’ve ever received?

The URL to enter at is:

http://mlpmonthly.tripod.com/Contact.htm
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A Christmas Tale
or
Baby Brightbow’s Christmas
by Melody (markp@gil.com.au)

Author’s note: I was reading Christmas stories from previous MLP Monthlys and decided that I’d try my luck at writing one. It’s kind of influenced by some of Sugarberry’s Christmas fics, so thanks to Sugarberry for inspiration! I hope everybody has a wonderful Christmas! Oh, and please let me know what you think of my story. :)


“She’s here, everyone! Megan’s here!” cried Star Gleamer, dashing through the gingerbread-scented halls of Paradise Estate.

Baby Brightbow turned around and leapt off the ladder she had been balancing on. It was Christmas time in Dream Valley, and there were signs of Christmas everywhere. Delicious scents wafted from the Paradise Estate kitchen– Baby Brightbow sniffed the air and detected gingerbread, fruit cake, and chocolate puddings. Just the thought of all that food made her hungry! It wasn’t just the food that was Christmassy. Garlands of glittering tinsel hung from the ceiling and there was mistletoe above every doorway. Brightly colored baubles decorated the enormous Christmas tree that Baby Brightbow and her friends had been covering in tinsel. And who could forget the dazzling lights of every color of the rainbow that blinked on and off rhythmically?

But Baby Brightbow wasn’t thinking about the tinsel, the mistletoe, the baubles, or the Christmas lights– she was thinking about Megan. It was obvious that her friends– Baby Starbow, Baby Rainribbon, Baby Sunribbon, Baby Countdown, and Baby Leaper– were also thinking about Megan, as all six babies tumbled out of Paradise Estate and into the snow-covered fields. In the distance they could see a blonde-haired figure, dressed in a fuzzy pink overcoat, sitting under a tree that was covered in snowdrifts. Baby Brightbow was so excited that she almost ran through the thick snow.

“Baby ponies!” exclaimed Megan, hugging each one, except of course for Baby Countdown and Baby Leaper. After all, hugging was a sissy thing to do!

“Megan, what’s that?” asked Baby Sunribbon, pointing to a curious object that Megan was holding. Megan held it out so that it glimmered in the winter sun.

“It’s called a Nativity,” Megan explained.

“What’s a na…na…natinery?” asked a very puzzled Baby Countdown.

Megan laughed and told the baby ponies to sit down. “I’m going to tell you all a story about Christmas, okay?” she said, and the babies nodded. “A long, long time ago, there lived a man named Joseph and his wife Mary. Mary was going to have a baby soon, and an angel told her that she was to name the baby Jesus.”

“Angels? Wow!” sighed Baby Starbow.

Megan smiled, but continued her story. “Now, Mary and Joseph had been traveling all day, and they needed a place to stay for the night. They asked at every inn they could see, but all the rooms were taken.”

“Poor Mary and Joseph!” cried Baby Rainribbon.

“Yes,” agreed Megan, “but keep listening… Mary and Joseph came to the last inn they could see and prayed to God that there would be a room there. They were getting desperate, as Mary knew that she would be having her baby very soon.”

“Oh dear! Was there a room at the inn?” inquired Baby Leaper.

“Not exactly, Baby Leaper. You see, the innkeeper told Mary and Joseph that there were no rooms left, except for the stable. Seeing as there was nowhere else for the couple to stay, they had to agree; and the innkeeper led them to a stable.”

“Did the stable have cows and donkeys and horses in it?” asked Baby Brightbow.

“Yes it did, Baby Brightbow. And all the calves and foals and chicks and their mommies watched as Mary had her baby. And she followed the angel’s directions– she named her baby Jesus.”

“Ooh…” breathed Baby Sunribbon, imagining the scene.

“People came from far and wide to see the baby Jesus. Three kings rode on camels and brought the baby gifts. Some shepherds came too and everyone bowed down in front of Jesus.”

“But why?” asked Baby Countdown, a little confused.

“Jesus was their savior. He was God’s son,” Megan answered.

“Who’s God?” asked Baby Leaper, a little embarrassed at not knowing the answer.

“God is very powerful, but He cares deeply for all of us– in fact, later on, He sacrificed his only son, Jesus, so that we could live! And whenever we do something wrong, we can pray to God and He will forgive us. Isn’t that great?” said Megan.

The baby ponies all nodded and smiled.

“And you know what people on earth say, baby ponies?” asked Megan.

The group shook their heads.

“Jesus is the reason for the season! Christmas, that is,” she grinned.

“Jesus is the reason for the season,” echoed Baby Brightbow, under her breath. What a nice little rhyme!

“That was a great story, Megan! But what has it got to do with the… navitny?” asked the inquisitive Baby Countdown.

“The Nativity shows the scene at Jesus’ birth. See the shepherds and the kings? And there’s the star that told the world of His birth,” she said, pointing.

“Ooh, and there are all the animals,” cried Baby Sunribbon happily. “Look, there’s a lamb and a calf and a foal– kind of like us!” she grinned.

“Right!” said Megan, passing around the Nativity so that everyone could see.

“So the reason we celebrate Christmas is because of Jesus’ birth?” said Baby Leaper.

“It sure is,” replied Megan.

“That means that Christmas day is… Jesus’ birthday! Isn’t that right Megan?” said Baby Rainribbon.

“Precisely.”

Baby Brightbow hadn’t the slightest idea what ‘precisely’ meant, but she was feeling more and more excited by the minute. An idea was forming in her brain and she couldn’t wait to buy the perfect birthday present for Jesus…

* * *
“Mommy, what does Jesus like?” asked Baby Brightbow as she nibbled on a gingerbread man.

Mommy Brightbow was rather startled by her daughter’s question. “I don’t know, honey– why?” she asked, a little puzzled.

“Well, I’m going to give Him a birthday present this Christmas,” Baby Brightbow said matter-of-factly.

“Oh, that’s very thoughtful of you! Why don’t you go and choose a present now?” said her mother, who hadn’t really heard the conversation properly, as she had been busy talking to Daddy Brightbow.

“Okay, mommy!” said Baby Brightbow, and off she went.

* * *
Baby Brightbow stared through frosted shop windows. There was the golden spinning top she wanted Santa to bring! But it wasn’t something someone as important as Jesus would like. That was the problem…

As Baby Brightbow passed bookstores and shoe shops and clothing stores and toy stores, she knew in her heart that none of them would house Jesus’ perfect birthday present. Suddenly an idea struck her– it was so obvious! She would talk to Baby Rainribbon– after all, she was the smartest little baby pony in Ponyland! And as if by fate, there was Baby Rainribbon, trotting into the toy shop.

“Baby Rainribbon! Wait up!” called Baby Brightbow, puffing as she caught up with her friend.

“Hiya Baby Brightbow! What’s up?” asked the purple baby pony.

“You know that story Megan told us? About baby Jesus?” asked Baby Brightbow.

“Sure– it was a wonderful tale,” agreed Baby Rainribbon.

“Well, I’m trying to find a birthday present for Jesus, but I can’t think what to get Him,” Baby Brightbow admitted.

“That’s a brilliant idea! But I’m afraid I don’t know what Jesus would want… after all, He is a very important person,” answered her friend gravely.

“That’s the problem…” sighed Baby Brightbow.

“Hey, cheer up! You can help me pick a Christmas present for my little sister,” said Baby Rainribbon with a smile.

The pair had a wonderful time looking at teddy bears and spinning tops and skittles and yo-yos and board games, until they finally chose a beautiful snow-white teddy bear for Baby Rainribbon’s sister.

“Thank you, Baby Brightbow. Baby Yo-Yo will love it!” said Baby Rainribbon, as she paid five jangles for the bear.

Baby Brightbow smiled and said, “Not at all, not at all. I’d do anything to help a friend!”

Suddenly, Baby Rainribbon reached into her mane and pulled out her golden ribbon. She handed it to Baby Brightbow.

“Here,” she said. “This is for all your help!” Baby Brightbow thanked her very much as she tied the ribbon in her own rainbow mane.

* * *
Baby Brightbow trudged along the snow-caked paths until she came to a hill, where Baby Countdown and Baby Leaper were pulling a sled up the slope. They waved and a thought occurred to Baby Brightbow. This was great!

Baby Countdown and Baby Leaper could build a fantastic go-kart in just one day– and win the go-kart competition with it! They could swim faster than any of the other baby girls and boys, and they would probably know exactly what Jesus would want for his birthday.

Her heart thumped as she walked over to the two boys and told them of her plan. Both boys were absolutely thrilled.

“Maybe Jesus would like a go-kart!” suggested Baby Countdown.

“Or a racing car… or, or, or a rocket ship!” chimed in Baby Leaper.

“How about a sailing ship?” Baby Countdown added eagerly.

“Ooh, I know! What about you give Him a tall tree to climb!” said Baby Leaper.

Baby Brightbow loved the sound of these, but where would she get them all? And to top it off, they sounded like things that Baby Leaper and Baby Countdown would like, not things that Jesus would like.

“Thank you for all your help, but I really don’t think Jesus would like those things,” she said, a little disappointed.

“Maybe not… but cheer up! You can hop in our sled and we can zoom to the bottom of the slope!” said Baby Countdown.

Baby Brightbow gasped. “Oh that would be excellent!” she squealed, jumping in the sled.

The three ponies spent a delightful hour in the sled, sliding down the hill (well, there were a few bumps!) and then getting out at the bottom, and dragging the sled all the way back up to the top, only to go rushing down again and again!

Much as she loved playing with the two baby brother ponies, Baby Brightbow knew that the day would soon be over– tomorrow would be Christmas, and there were only a few hours left of daylight. She had to find a present for Jesus now or there would be nothing to give Him on Christmas day! And that would be terrible!

“I have to go find Jesus a present now, okay, guys?” she said, brightening at the thought of the perfect gift.

“Aww, okay then– but come play with us some other time, Baby Brightbow!” said Baby Countdown.

Just then, Mommy Leaper came prancing towards the three little ponies, holding a tray. Balanced on top were three steaming hot chocolates and she offered one to each pony. Baby Leaper and Baby Countdown thanked Baby Brightbow for playing with them, and she set off sipping the hot chocolate, promising to return the mug the next day.

* * *
By now, Baby Brightbow was beginning to worry. Where would she find a present for Jesus?

The answer came to her in an instant– why hadn’t she thought of it before? Almost laughing, Baby Brightbow set off to find her best friend, Baby Starbow– after all, best friends knew everything. She found Baby Starbow at the park, having a full-fledged snowball fight with Baby Sunribbon. She galloped over and the two ponies stopped the snowball fight.

“What’s up, Baby Brightbow? Wanna play with us?” asked Baby Starbow.

Baby Brightbow shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I still have to find a birthday present for Jesus…” she trailed off.

“Oh, too bad,” said Baby Sunribbon sadly. But in that instant, snow began falling to the ground– but not the tiny cool snowflakes they loved– this snow came as fast as it could! It whistled around them as loud as a bell, and sounded to the three frightened babies like a screaming ghost!

“Hurry, let’s get to Paradise Estate– fast!” All three ponies ran blindly to the safety of the huge pink estate they called home. Once inside, they sat at the window seat, watching the snowstorm. Baby Countdown, Baby Leaper, and Baby Rainribbon joined them.

“Did you find a present for Jesus?” asked Baby Rainribbon.

Wiping a tear from her pink cheek, Baby Brightbow said, “No. Now Jesus won’t have the perfect birthday after all!” The baby pony began to cry, the tears spilling down her face. Her friends comforted her, but there wasn’t much that anyone could do to console her.

At that moment, Megan walked inside and the baby ponies crowded around her. Baby Brightbow stopped crying and bravely walked over to Megan.

“Megan, er, how do you talk to Jesus?” she enquired.

“You pray to Him! Like this,” Megan bent to her knees. “Then you tell Him to forgive you for your sins, and… well, you just tell Him whatever you’d like and maybe ask Him for something. Of course, you can’t be greedy,” said Megan.

“Thank you, Megan,” said Baby Brightbow.

“No problem– now, who wants to hear another story?” Megan replied, smiling at her friends.

“Ooh, me, me!” they cried, and Baby Brightbow’s sorrow was momentarily forgotten as she sat down on Paradise Estate’s soft carpet and listened to Megan, while the snow swirled and whirled around outside.

Megan finished her story and kissed each pony on his or her forehead. “Now, it’s time for you to go to bed if you want Santa to visit you tonight!” she told the sleepy little ponies.

They dragged their hooves over the carpet to go to their separate rooms and said goodnight, each secretly dreaming of what they would receive for Christmas the next day. But when Baby Brightbow went to her room she sank to her knees and closed her two front hoofs together.

“Dear Jesus,” she began. “My friend Megan, who is very smart and knows everything, told me that this is the right way to pray. I’m supposed to ask you to forgive me for my sins (whatever they are) so that’s what I’ll do. Will you forgive me for my sins, Jesus? Anyway, I spent all of today looking for the perfect birthday present for you, but I couldn’t find anything. I looked everywhere, Jesus, truly! My friends helped me too, but I couldn’t find anything and I don’t want you to be sad on your birthday, Jesus,” she sighed, trying to think what to say next. “Oh yes, I’m supposed to ask you for something I want! Well, all I want, Jesus, is for you to have a happy birthday tomorrow. Merry Christmas! Oh, and amen!” she finished. Just then, she heard a voice.

“Baby Brightbow, the best presents come from the heart. Your love for Me is the most perfect present of all,” said the voice.

Little Baby Brightbow looked up in awe. “Jesus?!” she said in disbelief, whirling around to look behind her. But the voice said nothing more. Baby Brightbow smiled and ran down the corridor into the kitchen.

Mommy Brightbow was standing with Star Gleamer, Diamond Dreams, Sundance, and Megan. All four adults, and, of course, Megan were singing Christmas carols while they put cupcakes, gingerbread, and cookies into the oven.

“Baby Brightbow! What are you doing up so late?” Mommy Brightbow stopped singing ‘Deck the Halls’ and hugged her daughter.

“Mommy, may I please have a plate and a gingerbread man?” asked Baby Brightbow.

“Of course!” said her mommy. “Are they for Santa?” she said with a smile.

“Nope! They’re for Jesus,” she said, happily. While Mommy Brightbow stared at her daughter, Megan winked at Baby Brightbow, who grinned and winked back!

Baby Brightbow took the plate with the gingerbread man down to her room and took a piece of paper from her chest of drawers. “Dear Jesus,” she wrote on the paper. “Happy birthday– or should I say Merry Christmas? Lots of love, Baby Brightbow,” she wrote.

By then, she was feeling terribly tired, so she crawled into bed and pulled her blankets up before drifting into dreamland with a long yawn.

* * *
“Hooray! It’s Christmas!” Baby Brightbow leapt out of bed and tipped the contents of her stocking onto her bed. There was the golden spinning top she had been wanting for ages! And a new barrette that was shaped like an ice-cream cone. She was about to dash off to the Christmas tree when she remembered the plate she had left for Jesus.

With a gasp, she walked to where the empty plate sat on her writing desk. There was a new piece of paper on it that read, “Merry Christmas, little one.”

Baby Brightbow smiled and scrambled to the window. The snowstorm had turned into a gentle fall of snowflakes, and Baby Brightbow stared at the beautiful blue sky, hugging the piece of paper.

“Merry Christmas to you too, Jesus!” whispered Baby Brightbow, smiling– and she knew that somewhere above her, Jesus was smiling, too.

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Merry Treat and Baby Stockings’ Surprise
by Steamer (mlplover@myway.com)


Every year, around Christmas, Merry Treat and her baby, Baby Stockings, were very busy. They were making and wrapping presents for all the baby ponies in Ponyland to match all the wish lists that they received.

One year, as Merry Treat was going out to the mailbox to get the wish lists that had come in that day, she found a wrapped gift on the doorstep. Hmmmmm, wonder how this got out here, she thought to herself, thinking that it was for a baby pony. Upon closer inspection, she found out what she thought was wrong. On the tag, it said “To Merry Treat and Baby Stockings, From: All the Baby Ponies in Ponyland”.

Merry Treat smiled and took the gift in to show Baby Stockings. “Look what the baby ponies left us,” she said.

“A gift? For us?” asked Baby Stockings. “Can we open it?”

“No, we’ll wait till Christmas Day like everyone else,” replied Merry Treat. “Besides, we have work to do; tomorrow is Christmas Eve.” She then put the gift in a corner in the living room and got back to work filling the sack with presents for the good baby ponies.

That night they each made sure they got plenty of rest; they knew they’d be up late that night delivering all the presents. They finished loading the sleigh, checked, double-checked, and even triple-checked the lists, making sure each baby pony got his or her wish. That night, with the help of eight special ponies, they delivered the presents to all the houses in Ponyland; and when they got home, they went to bed.

Even thought they didn’t get to bed till late, they were each up early the next morning. Each had the same thing on her mind– what did the baby ponies give them? They went downstairs and into the living room.

Merry Treat said Baby Stockings could open the gift. So she did, and what they saw brought tears to their eyes. Inside the package was a snow globe, showing Merry Treat and Baby Stockings out in front of their house; and a wreath, adorned with little baby ponies, representing all of the baby ponies in Ponyland. A note was in the present as well that said “Merry Christmas from all of the Baby Ponies.”

Merry Treat smiled and hung the wreath on their door, and put the snow globe on the mantel; and from then on, every Christmas, their two special presents would go in the same place.
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A Twinkle-Eyed Christmas
by Melody (markp@gil.com.au)


Author’s note– Obviously, this story took place before the Twinkle-Eyed ponies had Twinkle Eyes.



Fizzy sighed as she watched the Baby Ponies tumble down the stairs of Dream Castle, all rugged up in snowsuits or fuzzy jackets, ready for a snowball fight. She longed to be out there with them, but knew that it would be best to try and help out with the Christmas preparations. But what could she do? She poked her head around the corner and noticed her friends– Gingerbread, Sweet Pop, and Masquerade– decorating the Dream Castle Christmas tree.

“Hi, everybody!” she said, bouncing over to them. “Can I help decorate the tree?” She picked up a box of bright ornaments and began placing them on the tree.

“Uh, okay, Fizzy, but please be careful!” said Sweet Pop.

At that precise second, Fizzy tripped over a shiny red bauble. “Whooooaaaaa!” she squealed, toppling into the Christmas tree. The sudden force of her body weight against the tree caused it to wobble slightly. Fizzy hurriedly untangled herself from the tinsel and took a step backwards. Masquerade, Sweet Pop, and Gingerbread watched in disbelief as the tree swayed back and forth before finally collapsing all over poor Fizzy! The others helped pull the tree up and Fizzy emerged from under its branches, shaking a little from the shock.

“Oh, Fizzy, look what you’ve done!” cried Gingerbread in frustration.

“You’d best get out of here,” whispered Masquerade to her friend, ushering her out of the room.

“B-b-but I want to help…” she trailed off as the door was banged shut in her face. Feeling rather left out, Fizzy trotted off to the kitchen. If she couldn’t help with the tree, perhaps she would be allowed to bake some Christmas puddings. She entered the kitchen and saw Whizzer, Galaxy, and Sweet Stuff putting some trays in the oven.

“Ooh, that looks easy. May I help?” asked Fizzy.

“Sure!” said Whizzer, handing Fizzy a tray of gingerbread cookies.

“Just put them in the oven, okay?” said Galaxy over her shoulder. Fizzy nodded and started towards the oven, balancing the tray. Just then, she noticed that a particularly large star decoration was about to fall from the roof - straight onto Baby Gusty!

“Baby Gusty– look out!” she cried, completely forgetting about the tray she was holding. She dived and pushed the startled baby pony out of the way, just as the ornament landed and shattered into a million pieces. Baby Gusty hugged Fizzy tightly, but Sweet Stuff was not so happy.

“Look, Fizzy! Not only did the ornament break, but all my beautiful gingerbread cookies are completely ruined! Out! Now!” she said, shoving Fizzy out of the room, and slamming the door.

“All I want to do is help…” said Fizzy, sadly.

* * *
That night, Dream Castle was ablaze with the lights of candles, as all of the ponies sat in a circle around the newly decorated Christmas tree singing Christmas carols. “Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Falalalala, lalalala!” sang Fizzy loudly, causing some of the ponies to hold their hooves over their ears. Fizzy felt awful– she couldn’t even sing right.

One by one, the ponies retired to bed, until it was only Sky Rocket, Speedy, and Fizzy, singing a quiet version of “The First Noel”, while the candles flickered and the winter breeze blew them out.

Sky Rocket and Speedy yawned and gave Fizzy quick hugs before climbing the stairs to go to bed. Fizzy waved goodbye to her friends and turned on the Christmas tree lights. She stared at them and admired how they twinkled like beautiful jewels. She gave a yawn and checked the clock at Dream Castle. Oh my! she thought. It was almost midnight– Fizzy hadn’t realized how late it was; and if she didn’t get into bed soon, then Santa wouldn’t come! Although the other ponies thought that Fizzy was slightly immature for believing in Santa, she still had a childish belief that Santa really did come– perhaps it was what, for Fizzy, contributed to the magic of Christmas…

CRASH!

Fizzy leapt up from her place under the Christmas tree. What on earth had that noise been? Her first thought was that it had been a ghost, but even Fizzy didn’t believe in ghosts. But her second thought was something truly unbelievable. No matter how much she wanted it to be Santa, she knew she was being foolish and that he didn’t really exist… or did he?

Her heart thumping so loudly that she thought it would explode at any second, Fizzy crept to the door and opened it, not knowing what to expect. She peered into the darkness and sighed– there was no one there. It had probably just been an animal– why had she gone and gotten her hopes up? It was then that Fizzy heard the noise again– it was coming from the roof! Fizzy could see a dark shadow moving about on the rooftop. It looked to be thrashing quite violently. With a gasp, Fizzy realized that whatever it was, the thing was in trouble! It needed help!

“Are you all right?” called Fizzy tentatively.

“I’m stuck!” cried a voice that sounded terribly frustrated.

“Don’t move! I… I’ll try and get you down!” Fizzy called back up to the creature. But what on earth could she do to help? She dashed as quickly as she could up the steps of Dream Castle, and then hesitated. She was standing at the base of the steps that led to the turrets... only the most courageous ponies ever came up here. After all, it was said to be haunted! A little frightened, but determined to save the creature in need, Fizzy bravely mounted the steps to the central turret, armed with some items she thought may be needed. In her sweating hooves, she clutched a long rope, a pair of scissors, a lantern, and a lump of sugar, in case the creature was terrified and needed some reassuring.

She climbed the staircase step by step, grimacing all the time, until she reached the turret. “Okay, Fizzy, you can do this!” she whispered to herself, then pushed the window of the turret open. She held the lantern out in front of her and flooded the Dream Castle roof with light. “A reindeer?” squeaked Fizzy, as she saw the creature that was in distress.

“Rudolph’s the name,” said the reindeer. “I was with Santa and the other reindeer but the strong blizzards blew me off course and I crashed on the roof and became tangled in tinsel!” said the reindeer desperately.

“Oh, you poor thing!” exclaimed Fizzy, sliding down the roof, clutching the sugar cube and scissors in one hoof, and the lantern in the other. “Don’t you worry, Rudolph– I’ll untangle you!” she said, snipping the tinsel with her scissors. “There! You’re free to go,” finished Fizzy, stepping back to admire Rudolph’s shining red nose.

“Thank you!” exclaimed Rudolph, nuzzling Fizzy. “But what is your name?”

“Oops, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Fizzy. Pleased to meet you,” she replied.

Rudolph stood up and shook the snow off his face. “That’s much better,” he exclaimed, but then let out a gasp of fright. “Uh-oh…” he began, and Fizzy could see the color draining from his face in the lantern’s glow. “Oh no! I’ve lost my bridle!” he cried sadly.

“Oh dear!” exclaimed Fizzy.

“Yes, it is rather sad. You see, the bridle was a Christmas present from Santa last year– it’s studded with precious stones of every color imaginable– there are rubies, sapphires, amethysts; and even a rare, exotic, bright pink jewel that came from a far off country…” Rudolph sighed, and Fizzy imagined the fantastic jeweled bridle. She simply had to see it! And whatever happened, she had to help Rudolph. She wondered what Santa would do if he found out that Rudolph had lost a prized bridle and shuddered at the thought. She hated it when ponies were angry with her and did not wish the same fate upon the poor reindeer.

“I’ll help you find it,” she told him matter-of-factly.

Rudolph stared at her in admiration. “You are a kind pony. How will I ever repay you?” he said.

“No need! Now, let’s find this bridle!” she said as Rudolph flew her back to the door of Dream Castle.

“We can look through the snow by lamp light,” she said, already scanning the ground for a glimmer of color.

“That’s fine by me,” said Rudolph, and the pair set to work.

* * *
Fizzy yawned loudly and closed her eyes for a second. She was so tired, and according to the Dream Castle clock, which she could see through the window, it was 2:00 am. Fizzy longingly dreamt of the soft warm bed that was waiting for her in her nice, cozy bedroom, when she tripped over something.

“Oh dear!” she grumbled sleepily. “When will the baby ponies ever learn to put their toys away?” She bent down to pick up the object, and to her immense surprise found herself looking down at a dazzling kaleidoscope of colors. Their brightness was simply stunning, and they twinkled like the stars in the deep blue sky. Fizzy breathed in and gleefully ran her hooves over each of the jewels that were studded in the bridle. “Rudolph!” she whispered. “I’ve found it! It was hidden in a snowdrift!” she grinned, as Rudolph came cantering over.

“My, my, my! It’s all in one piece! What a miracle!” said Rudolph, snorting in delight, as Fizzy clipped and buckled the bridle onto his snout.

“Rudolph, you look stunning…” said Fizzy, not being able to think of a word to describe the bridle. “It’s… indescribable!” she added with a grin.

Rudolph blushed and his face turned scarlet. “Well, I’d better be on my way. The only problem is... I don’t know where Santa has gone,” he said.

“Oh, that is a problem…” said Fizzy, wishing that Wind Whistler were standing beside her. The logical Wind Whistler would have been able to figure out the answer to the dilemma in the blink of an eye.

“I’m so terribly sorry, Fizzy. I’m such a curse! You shouldn’t have to worry about me. I’ll find Santa by myself. You shouldn’t be burdened with a reindeer like me,” said Rudolph, shaking his head in disgust.

“No, wait, Rudolph!” said Fizzy, as an idea formed in her mind. “We can go and see the Moochick!” she exclaimed. “Come with me…” she began trudging through the snow, but Rudolph stopped her.

“You give me directions, and I’ll fly you there,” he told her. Fizzy was startled but jumped on the reindeer’s back, and wiggled into a comfortable position, holding Rudolph’s reins, which were also jewel-studded. “Hold on!” he yelled above the wind, and Fizzy felt all her worries melt away as she was carried into the air. They streaked through clouds and Fizzy laughed as her mane and tail streamed out behind her. She felt on top of the world– there was no real way to describe flying, but to Fizzy, it was the most wonderful feeling she had ever experienced. She closed her eyes and imagined how wonderful it would feel if she were a pegasus pony, like Sweet Pop or Whizzer or Masquerade…

“Head south!” she directed Rudolph, and he soared like a bird in a southerly direction. “Okay– time to land!” said Fizzy, reluctantly. She had never wanted to stop flying, but knew that Rudolph needed her help.

* * *
“Oh Mr. Mooooochiiiick,” called Fizzy, rapping on the door of the Mushromp rather loudly, forgetting that the Moochick might be asleep. “Are you home?” she called again, but was quieted by Rudolph.

“He’s home. I hear footsteps,” he told her. That moment, the door creaked open, revealing a sleepy looking dwarf-like little man, in a nightcap and dressing gown. Standing next to him was an equally tired-looking hare, who yawned as he let the visitors in.

“Now, ah, let me see… what seems to be troubling you?” queried the Moochick, attempting to stifle a yawn.

“It’s my friend Rudolph. You see, he got lost in a blizzard and he can’t find Santa and he’s in trouble and what if he never comes home, Mr. Moochick? And we really need your help!” Fizzy blurted out.

Mr. Moochick was instantly taken aback. He hadn’t the faintest idea how to solve a dilemma such as this. “Er, indeed… it is a problem,” he agreed, pacing up and down the little room. All of a sudden, the hare began gesturing madly towards the chimney– pointing and hopping up and down in surprise.

“Now really! Whatever is the matter with you?” began the Moochick in a huff.

“Mr. Moochick– look!” cried Fizzy, gasping as they heard a whooooosh! All of a sudden, an enormous man burst into the room– from the fireplace! As soon as he saw the group assembled nearby, he gave a small yelp, and frantically scrambled back towards the fireplace. “I don’t believe it!” said Fizzy, gaping in surprise.

The Moochick’s eyes widened and they almost popped out of his head as he stared at the visitor. “It’s… no, no, it couldn’t be Santa!” he stuttered, but the man nodded. Just then, he noticed Rudolph standing in the shadows just behind the group.

“Rudolph!” he bellowed heartily, rushing forwards.

“Santa!” the reindeer cried ecstatically. Rudolph rushed towards Santa and rubbed his head on Santa’s hand. “Oh Santa, I was so worried!” he began.

“Shhh, shhh… it’s all right, Rudolph. Why don’t you tell me everything that’s happened to you? Let’s start at the beginning,” said Santa, settling into a comfortable red armchair, before the Moochick could even begin protesting.

* * *
“So that’s what happened,” concluded Rudolph, smiling at his new friend. Fizzy smiled back.

“Do you mean to tell me that this little pony untangled you from tinsel, helped you look for your bridle, and took you here to see this Moochick fellow just so you could be united with me?” Santa said, not quite believing the story.

“Yes. It’s exactly what happened,” Rudolph replied to a very astonished Santa Claus. Fizzy gave a yawn. She couldn’t really help it, though– after her long night she was very, very tired.

Santa noticed and grinned at her. “Come with me, little pony– what did you say your name was?” said Santa.

“I didn’t get around to telling you, actually. But I’m Fizzy,” replied the aquamarine pony, as Santa enthusiastically shook her hoof. She, Rudolph, Santa, and the other reindeer, which were assembled outside the Mushromp, waved to the Moochick and his trusty hare.

“Goodbye, Mr. Moochick! Thank you for all your help!” called Fizzy as Santa helped her into his sleigh. With a swish of the reins, the sleigh flew into the star-dotted sky, and Fizzy marveled at the beautiful snow-covered fields and tiny houses she could see below.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Santa.

“Oh, it is,” said Fizzy in agreement. “But I think Christmas lights or shining jewels are the most beautiful things of all,” she added, pointing out a tree that was covered in blinking lights.

“Yes, they are,” said Santa, enjoying the little pony’s company.

“Santa, may I ask you a question?” asked Fizzy.

“Certainly,” said Santa, curious as to what the pony would ask.

“Have you delivered presents to everyone on Earth tonight?” she asked breathlessly.

Santa gave a small chuckle. “Why yes, Fizzy– everyone except the residents of Dream Castle, actually! And that’s where we’re headed now, of course,” said Santa. Fizzy nodded and watched as the night sky turned to a beautiful orange-pink hue.

“It’s dawn. Almost time for sunrise,” grinned Santa, and Fizzy watched as the sun rose over the horizon, drowning everything in a pale morning light. The sleigh landed outside Dream Castle and Fizzy dismounted.

“Thank you for everything, Santa, and thank you, too, reindeer!” she said, happily.

“No, Fizzy. It’s my turn to thank you. Rudolph?” said Santa, as Rudolph trotted forward, positively beaming.

“W-W-What’s going on…?” stammered Fizzy.

“Fizzy, what is your one wish?” asked Santa.

Fizzy closed her eyes tightly and thought with all her might. “My one wish,” she said carefully, “is for all of my friends to have twinkles in their eyes– like the jewels on Rudolph’s bridle.”

“Aha– then your wish will come true, Fizzy! But I think I can do better than that.” Suddenly the jewels flew off Rudolph’s bridle and circled over Fizzy’s head. In a dazzling eruption of pink sparkles, Fizzy gasped at her reflection in the Dream Castle window– her eyes were now two glittering pink jewels!

“Oh, Rudolph, Santa, thank you!” she said, flinging herself onto her two new friends.

“Here. Take these jewels. The minute your friends touch one, they will be Twinkle-Eyed too!” said Santa, jumping on the sleigh. Fizzy waved.

“Thank you, everyone– not only for the best Christmas ever– but for the most amazing and wonderful Christmas surprise!” shouted Fizzy.

* * *
“It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!” The baby ponies were thoroughly excited as they bounded down the stairs. Fizzy shivered with excitement as her own friends– Whizzer, Gingerbread, Sweet Stuff, Galaxy, Masquerade, Sweet Pop, Speedy, and Sky Rocket– came cantering downstairs.

“Merry Christmas, everyone!” she cried, handing out the jewels to the stunned ponies. Within minutes, they were all admiring their new twinkling eyes.

“Thank you, Fizzy! Thank you!” they chorused.

Just then, Gingerbread stepped forward. “Fizzy, Sweet Pop, Whizzer, Masquerade, and I are sorry we yelled at you when the Christmas tree came down,” she said shyly.

Fizzy just shook her head. “That’s okay!” she began, but she was interrupted by Sweet Stuff.

“Um, Whizzer, Galaxy and I are terribly sorry that we shouted at you for ruining the Christmas cookies…” she sighed.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Fizzy, positively brimming with happiness. She hugged each of her friends one by one. “In fact, it’s been a very…” she paused, not knowing quite what to say, then suddenly an idea came to her in an instant. “It’s been a very Twinkle-Eyed Christmas!” she finished and the other little ponies agreed that “A Twinkle-Eyed Christmas” suited the day perfectly.



MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A note from Tabby– You will observe that I made no contribution to this year’s Christmas story. So sad! At least, I’m sad. The rest of you probably aren’t. After all, you just have a thirty page story to read instead of forty!! But I was trying to get my part done, really I was. But I blame it on the late Thanksgiving. It lulled me into a false sense of security that I still had plenty of time after the holiday before December arrived. I was quite unpleasantly surprised to find that it was in fact only three days. All three of which I had to work long hours. Goodbye, Christmas story! Well, in any case, Sugarberry didn’t let you down; and I can revamp mine just as easily into a New Year’s story for next month.



Christmas in Dream Valley, 2003
by Sugarberry (Sugrbery@aol.com)


“This is super!” exclaimed Cockleburr. “I love having snow for Christmas!” The colt and several of his friends were skimming over the ice at the skating rink, a flooded and iced-over plot in the neighborhood to give the ponies a safe place to enjoy the blast of cold winter weather that had held Dream Valley in its grip for the weeks leading up to the holiday.

“Yeah,” agreed Baby Leaper as he sped past Cockleburr. “Catch me if you can!”

This dare was accepted with alacrity by Cockleburr, and the two colts raced merrily across the ice, headed directly for Baby Noddins, Baby Falling Leaves, and Baby Leafy at the far end of the rink. The three fillies were intent on learning a synchronized dance pattern on skates and were completely oblivious of the colts until the two speeding bodies rushed by them with such force that the three girls were knocked into a tangled heap of manes, tails, and legs.

“Oops!” Leaper grinned as he and Cockleburr swooped back to rescue the threesome. “I thought you saw us comin’.”

“Likely story,” grumbled Noddins, who happened to end up on the bottom of the stack. “Falling Leaves, get your mane out of my mouth!”

“I would if Leafy would get off me so that I could move my head!”

“I’m trying. I’m trying,” groaned Leafy, struggling to disengage her limbs from the melee. She smiled gratefully at Cockleburr as he offered her a hoof and pulled her upright. Falling Leaves was then able to extricate herself while Noddins remained prostrate on the cold ice.

“I feel like a ton of bricks fell on me,” she complained.

“We’re not that heavy!” countered Falling Leaves. “Here, give me your hoof.” With Falling Leaves pulling and Leaper pushing, they soon had the filly on her hooves as well.

“Brrr!” Noddins shivered. “The ice made me cold.” She glared at Leaper. “And it’s all your fault!”

“Hey! Cockleburr was chasin’ me!”

“The snow is gettin’ thicker,” noted Cockleburr, an expert at avoiding arguments because of his experience with five younger siblings. “Maybe we should all head home.”

“Mom said she’d make hot chocolate for us,” Falling Leaves announced. “Everybody’s invited.”

“Let’s hurry,” muttered Noddins, “before I turn into an ice cube.”

“That I’d like to see,” Leaper smirked.

The group was out of their skates and on the way to Falling Leaves’ house when Leafy groaned.

“What is it?” asked Cockleburr in some concern. “You didn’t hurt yourself when you guys fell down, did you?”

“No. I wish that was all it is. I just remembered that I left Star locked in my bedroom because Mom didn’t want him pestering her when she was wrapping presents. He always wants to get in the boxes or play in the paper,” Leafy went on to explain, “and makes an awful nuisance of himself. He’ll need to use the litter box by now, so I can’t come to your house, Falling Leaves.”

Seeing the disappointment on his friend’s face, Cockleburr spoke up. “I’ll walk you home, Leafy.” Turning to Falling Leaves, he added, “Thanks for askin’ us over, but my mom could probably use some help with all the kids at home with still so much to get done before Christmas.”

Once Cockleburr and Leafy had turned down their street amidst a medley of holiday greetings, Noddins, Falling Leaves, and Leaper continued on to Falling Leaves’ house, only to meet up with a couple more neighborhood friends, Teddy and Parquet. Those two quickly accepted Falling Leaves invitation to come to her house for hot chocolate; they were nearing the back door when Falling Leaves began to giggle.

“What’s that your holding, Teddy? Your teddy bear?” All the foals stopped to stare.

Teddy rolled his eyes. Would his friends never let him live down that episode? “No. It’s not my teddy bear. It’s not even a bear. It’s a...” He held up the floppy fabric animal and studied it. “... a cat, I think.”

“So you’ve graduated to a kitty-cat?” Leaper taunted, ducking as Teddy took a swing at him.

“I found it. Parquet was there... he’ll tell you.”

“Yeah,” his friend backed him up. “It was just lying in the path covered in snow. Teddy stumbled over it and picked it up when he realized what it was.”

“Some little kid probably dropped it,” Teddy said, frowning. “He might be missing it, too.” Teddy knew how sad it could be to lose a favorite stuffed animal.

“It’s a Puffalump,” Falling Leaves noted. “My baby sister has one, only hers is a dog.”

“Um, guys,” Noddins winced, “my ankle is really starting to hurt where Falling Leaves landed on it. I think I should go straight home after all.”

“Do you need some help?” Parquet asked.

Noddins shivered. “I think I might need someone to lean on,” she admitted. “It’s started to hurt something fierce while we’ve been standing here talking.”

“My house is closest to yours, so I’ll go with you,” volunteered Teddy. He moved to offer his support to the lavender unicorn filly as the snowflakes continued to fall around them. “Merry Christmas!” he called back to the dwindling group of revelers.

“Merry Christmas!” the three chorused in return.

* * *
“The snow is coming down heavier,” observed Sugarberry as she and Vanguard and Banderol neared Woodlawn. “It will be heavenly to get out of the weather.”

“I’m just glad that there are enough ponies traveling today to keep the path readily visible,” replied Vanguard, squinting through the snowflakes to make sure they were headed in the right direction. “Everything looks rather mystical.”

“It’s beautiful,” agreed Sugarberry. “But I’d enjoy it more if we were closer to your parents’ house than we are.”

“It’s not that much farther,” Vanguard assured his wife. “Why don’t I take Banderol again? He must be getting heavy for you.”

“The wetter he gets from the snow, the heavier he seems,” grimaced Sugarberry. She kissed the little foal on the top of his head before handing him over to his father.

Banderol had been little trouble on the trip from Dream Valley to Woodlawn as he had been mesmerized by the snowflakes that had begun gently falling when the family had been only a couple miles out of town; as the morning had progressed, however, the pace of the snowflakes had increased until now they seemed to blanket the countryside under a downy blanket of white. As Vanguard had noted, the path would have been obliterated if not for the number of ponies hurrying to reach their holiday destinations before travel became impossible.

Yawning widely, Banderol nestled his head into his father’s mane, one little foreleg clutched around the stallion’s neck, the other absently tugging at his own ear. Just when Vanguard had thought the little tyke had gone to sleep, Banderol reared back his head and began crying.

“Sweetheart, what’s the matter?” crooned Sugarberry, stopping to massage the foal’s back.

“Key-Key,” the foal, a miniature of his father except for one lock of his mother’s red hair, cried.

“Oh, you want your kitty; Mommy’ll get him for you.” The mare looked up into Vanguard’s eyes hopefully. “Do you remember whose backpack Kitty-Kitty is in?”

“I put the Puffalump in yours as it is almost weightless,” Vanguard grinned.

Slipping her satchel off her shoulders, Sugarberry unfastened the latch and looked inside. “I suppose you stuck in way at the bottom,” she accused, seeing no sign of the purple and white cat.

“No; as a matter of fact, it was the last thing to go in. It should be right on top.”

Digging once more through the items in the backpack, Sugarberry came up empty-hoofed. “Maybe it fell out when you opened it,” suggested Vanguard, searching the powdery ground around his hooves with Sugarberry soon joining him in that activity.

“Key-Key,” Banderol wailed as he watched his parents’ fruitless efforts.

“It couldn’t have buried itself in the snow,” rationalized Vanguard. “It’s too light to even sink in this soft stuff.” He kicked at the mounding snow around them.

“But what else could have happened to it?” worried Sugarberry, casting an anxious eye once more over the immediate area.

Vanguard thought back over the hectic packing they had accomplished earlier in the day. “I put the Puffalump in the backpack while you said goodbye to Fluff and Raptor. Then I answered the phone– a wrong number– and by then you were ready to go... after you latched your backpack.”

“So it has to be in here,” Sugarberry said, rummaging again through her satchel. “Are you sure it’s not in yours?”

“At this point, I’m not sure of anything,” sighed Vanguard as Banderol’s tears grew heavier. He shrugged off his own packback, and Sugarberry gave it a thorough check before admitting defeat.

“Kitty-Kitty’s not here.”

Hearing those fateful words, Banderol struggled to get out of his dad’s forelegs, his crying stopping only when Vanguard set him down on the snowy path. Banderol, without a look at either of his parents, took off down the path leading back to Dream Valley.

“Banderol!” Sugarberry called as she rushed to stymie the foal’s progress. “We can’t go back home to find Kitty-Kitty; we’re almost at Grandma and Grandpa’s.”

The foal gave a credible impression of shrugging his shoulders. “Key-Key.” The look of determination in his eyes was rather convincing as well. He took several more steps on his journey before his father blocked his progress.

“Banderol, just what do you know about Kitty’s absence that you’re not telling us?”

“Key-Key... aw gone,” the forlorn little pony said.

“Kitty-Kitty was supposed to ride in the backpack,” Vanguard said, getting down to the foal’s level. “Why isn’t he there now?”

“Fawl,” the foal said, looking to the powdery ground.

“Sweetie,” Sugarberry groaned, “you didn’t take him out of the backpack, did you?”

The foal shook his head stubbornly in the affirmative. “Key-Key.” He made a hugging motion with his forelegs.

“And where is he now?” Vanguard gently asked.

“Aw gone!” the little colt admitted, his face puckering up as a new batch of tears let loose.

Picking him up and snuggling him close, Vanguard patted Banderol’s back in a useless effort to appease the child and looked at Sugarberry helplessly. “He must have taken the Puffalump out of the backpack when I went to answer the phone. He walked beside us the first mile, so he had to have dropped it way back there.” He waved his hoof in the direction of Dream Valley, sending the snowflakes spiraling in little dance patterns through the air.

“Oh, Bandy,” Sugarberry commiserated. “Kitty-Kitty will be waiting for you when we go home again.” She looked beseechingly at her husband to verify that hope.

“We’ll find him, Banderol. But you’ll have to wait until after we’ve visited your grandparent’s. You can do that, can’t you? Then when we find Kitty-Kitty again, you and he can share all your stories about what happened while you were apart.”

Sniffing back his tears, Banderol heroically nodded his head and once again settled his head on his dad’s shoulder.

* * *
Teddy sat at the kitchen table at Noddins’ house with Noddins, her injured hoof resting on a pillowed chair, and Noddins’ two siblings: her older brother, Harely, and little sister, Bunny. All were having cookies and hot chocolate as Frostflake busied herself readying the house for Christmas Eve company. As the blue mare bustled out of the room, Harely leaned across the table toward Teddy and smirked.

“I never believed those stories about your teddy bear, but it appears they’re true.”

Suddenly conscious that he was still holding onto the squishy, huggable cat, Teddy reddened. “This isn’t mine; I found it over toward Fifth Avenue just lying on the street. Some little foal must have lost it.”

Harely made a grab for the cat and swung it high above Teddy’s head. “I think this is your sleepy-by friend,” the colt chortled.

“It’s not mine!” Teddy reiterated. “But somebody might not sleep tonight without it.”

“Yeah, baby! You!”

Teddy made a desperate reach for the floppy cat, but Harely’s longer forelegs kept him at bay until Frostflake returned to get the broom. “Harely!” she scolded. “Give Teddy his little kitty back.”

“Yes, Mother,” Harely grinned. “Here, Teddy. You and little kitty sleep well tonight... or does kitty stay awake to protect you from all the monsters under your bed?”

“Harely!” Frostflake warned. “You can make yourself useful by sweeping the snow off the front porch and sidewalk.” She handed him the broom. Harely obeyed, but sent Teddy one more sneering glance before he disappeared from the kitchen.

“Let me see the kitty,” said Noddins, stifling a yawn. The warm kitchen, hot chocolate, and the medicine her mother had given her were having a sleepy effect after her vigorous exercise at the skating rink. She accepted the toy from Teddy with a tired smile. “Aww. It’s awfully cute.” She cuddled the kitten as if it were the real thing. “And soft, too.”

“If it is someone’s favorite stuffed animal, there’s going to be a foal crying himself to sleep tonight.” Looking up, Teddy caught a teasing smile forming on Noddins’ face so he added quickly, “I’d guess.”

“Of course, Teddy,” Noddins agreed, then studied the cat some more. “Hey, look, there’s a tiny gold chain around its neck with a...” The filly stopped and looked more closely. “... with a guardian angel charm on it. That’s cool.” She put her head back against the chair and snuggled the floppy cat to her. “I feel so tired.”

“Noddins, you’d better go lie down awhile or you won’t be able to play with your cousins tonight. I’ll help you in a minute. Teddy, it was nice of you to assist Noddins home; I really appreciate that. You and your family have a happy Christmas, now.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Teddy mumbled, getting to his hooves and moving toward the door. He took one last look at Noddins who was hugging the cat to her like a long-lost friend and sighed. He would have to leave the cat with Noddins if it brought her some comfort from the pain she was suffering.

But who, he wondered, was needing comfort over losing the cat?

* * *
“Oh! It feels so good to be in a warm house again!” Sugarberry said sincerely as she dried her snow-dampened mane with a fluffy towel; she, Vanguard, and Banderol were now safely encamped at Vanguard’s parents’ home in Woodlawn. Nearby, Floral Breeze had her little grandson enveloped in a white towel to dry him off as well, while Vanguard and Whirlpool visited near the fireplace.

“Snow always makes Christmas extra special, but twelve inches of the stuff is going too far,” remarked Floral Breeze.

“For information’s sake, the weather pony has changed the forecast to accommodate as much as fifteen inches,” Whirlpool reported.

“I’m glad we left home when we did, or we would have had a difficult time getting here,” Sugarberry said, draping the damp towel over a chair and shaking out her locks. “It was slow going as it was.” She smiled at Banderol who was sitting on Grandma’s lap swathed in the downy towel with only his face showing and hoped the foal would be content without his prized Puffalump companion. So far he had been too caught up in his grandparent’s attention to give any thought to Kitty-Kitty.

A knocking followed by the abrupt opening of the front door could be heard in the entry hall, then a booming voice calling out, “Merry Christmas!” A blast of wet, cold air snaked into the parlor, preceding the arrival of Stillwater, Morning Dew, and their two foals: the bouncy three-year-old, Droplet; and the newborn, Cascade. A flurry of greetings were exchanged from all sides.

Meeting her pearly pink sister-in-law, Sugarberry soon had claimed little Cascade to ooh and ah over the precious family addition, while Droplet scampered to her grandmother’s side to reacquaint herself with Banderol; the little colt was overwhelmed for a moment, leaning back into the safety of Floral Breeze’s protection; but he soon became absorbed in his cousin’s chatter. Once Droplet had introduced the colt to the toy box, the two youngsters settled down together companionably.

“Cascade’s seven weeks old today,” beamed Morning Dew as she and Sugarberry gazed down at the sleeping infant.

“He’s beautiful,” Sugarberry acclaimed. “And so tiny! Has Banderol really grown that much in one year?” She looked across the room where Droplet was organizing a tea party... with Banderol undoing all her efforts as quickly as he could, causing the petite filly to stand over him with her hooves planted against her sides and giving him a no-nonsense lecture on proper play etiquette. The mare laughed. “That reminds me of raking leaves this fall– Licorice was helping, but he ended up playing in the leaves with Banderol and undoing all our work.”

“In another year, Cascade will prove to be a ready accomplice for Banderol. Together, they’ll refute Droplet’s domineering tendencies,” Stillwater grinned, flinching slightly as his daughter wrestled a miniature tea cup out of Banderol’s hoof.

Whirlpool went to give the little colt some support, introducing him to several plastic wildlife figures; and those two were soon comfortably setting up a forest scene– with Droplet abandoning her tea party to help.

“Are those the same animals that we played with as foals?” Vanguard asked of his mother.

“Yes; I saved them all these years. I introduce a few of them at a time to Droplet so she remains interested.” Floral Breeze smiled. “They’re all in good shape, except for one wolf that Icon was especially devoted to; he teethed on it.”

“Speaking of little brother, did he and Splotch get started on their journey in time to beat the storm?” Stillwater asked.

“I can only hope,” Floral Breeze sighed. “It’s a long trip to Happy Hollow; heaven only knows what they’ll get into before they get there.”

“I don’t envy anyone traveling,” Stillwater admitted. “We even thought that you, Sugarberry, wouldn’t have braved the weather this year. As a matter of fact, Morning Dew and I brought everything with us we’d need to spend the night... if that works out for you.” He looked at his mother questioningly.

“Oh, what fun!” Floral Breeze nearly bounced. “It’ll be just like old times. It makes me wish that Icon and his bride-to-be would have chosen to spend Christmas here this year, too. We’d have the whole family together.”

“I was afraid we wouldn’t have been able to get out of the house by morning,” Morning Dew said. “And Droplet was bound and determined to spend as much time with Banderol as possible.”

“I wonder if we’ll even be able to make it to church tonight,” Whirlpool mused, leaving the foals to peak out the window at a blustery landscape. A strong gust of wind blasted the snowflakes against the glass, temporarily blocking all sight. “The storm is getting worse.”

In that moment, the sound of the back door being slammed open by the wind caused everyone to jump; Banderol abandoned Droplet to rush to his father’s side, his eyes wide as saucers. “Santa?” he queried is a quiet voice as Vanguard swept him into his forelegs. But the whoosh of air that rushed through the house from the direction of the kitchen carried with it the sound of squabbling voices, neither of which could have been the kindly Saint Nick.

Floral Breeze looked heavenward. “Oh, dear. It sounds like Splotch and Icon didn’t make it to Happy Hollow after all.” She headed toward the kitchen with everyone else following closely behind.

“If you hadn’t insisted that we stop to visit your friend, we wouldn’t have missed our flight!” Icon growled, facing his fiancee with apparent indignation.

“How was I supposed to know that the snow would slow us down so much?” retaliated the magenta mare, her emerald green eyes sparking in return.

“Children, children,” Whirlpool chastened. “It’s obvious that your plans have gone astray, but this is not the time or the place to assign blame.”

“I’d think you’d both be grateful to be out of that awful weather,” Floral Breeze added, moving to fetch more towels for this newest batch of snow-laden travelers.

“I’m sorry we burst in on you this way,” Splotch contritely responded, yet the look she flashed at Icon was barely civil. “We walked all the way to Coville and missed the plane by fifteen minutes. And by the time the next flight east was supposed to depart, the flight was cancelled. And rather than seeking out a hotel where we could take shelter, Icon insisted that we come back to Woodlawn because he couldn’t think of spending Christmas Eve without his family.” Her eyes narrowed.

Icon accepted a towel from his mother with a brief smile, but immediately turned to face Splotch. “You were so determined to spend hours visiting with a former boyfriend...”

“He was my math tutor,” Splotch hissed.

“Excuse me,” Icon rasped. “You were so determined to spend hours...”

“Half an hour!”

Icon ignored this interruption. “... visiting with a stallion who obviously meant a lot to you...”

“He helped me get a passing grade in algebra... that’s all.”

“That’s all? He couldn’t keep his hooves off of you.”

“We shared a hug! Is there anything wrong with that? We hadn’t seen each other for years!”

“And he held your hoof the entire time we were there,” Icon fumed.

“You are impossible!” Splotch threw the wet towel in Icon’s face, then turned to the door. “I’m going to my apartment; Christmas Eve alone is certainly an improvement over spending it with you!” She opened the inside door and the storm door snapped outward, sending a flurry of snowflakes and bitter cold into the room that literally stopped Splotch in her tracks, giving Icon time to reach around her to pull the door shut once more.

“You, little spitfire, are staying right here.” Then, as if the cold blast of air had cooled his temper, he went on in a calmer voice. “Things didn’t work out the way we planned, but maybe we should just make the best of it instead of trying to get the last word in.” He brushed the latest shower of snowflakes off her mane and grinned. “It is Christmas, after all... peace and good will and all that.”

For several moments, peace hung in the balance as Splotch considered this conciliatory offer; then the dangerous gleam in her eyes changed to a mellow glow. “Oh, Icon, I’m sorry I’ve been in such a beastly mood; but I had so counted on spending Christmas with my family.”

“We’ll get to Happy Hollow as soon as the weather straightens out,” Icon promised. The mare gave him a big hug, and the stallion winked at his own family over her shoulder. “Maybe we should pretend we just arrived and wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”

Suddenly very aware of their audience, Splotch pulled back from Icon, her cheeks darkening in a blush. “Merry Christmas, everyone. And I didn’t mean to imply that I’m not happy to be sharing the holiday with you; you’re all my family, too.” Her penitent expression was so sincere that her apology met with nothing but warm words of welcome.

* * *
After getting over his initial shyness of Splotch and Icon, Banderol found the young couple to be highly entertaining as they sat on the floor telling stories, singing carols, and partaking of Grandma’s cut-out sugar cookies and mugs of hot chocolate. The wind still howled outside the windows and the snow continued to fall as an early darkness closed in on the shortening day.

With the approach of evening, Banderol’s eyes began to droop; and he crawled onto Splotch’s lap while she and Icon led the rest of the ponies in a lively bout of caroling. By the time the singing ended, the little colt was sound asleep, his tiny hoof wrapped around a lock of Splotch’s primrose pink hair.

“Banderol was so caught up in the activities around him that he forgot about Kitty-Kitty,” Sugarberry commented to her husband. At the questioning look from the others, she went on to explain. “Banderol rescued his favorite stuffed animal from the backpack before we even left the house, and neither of us noticed. He dropped Kitty-Kitty somewhere along the way and was quite put-out when he realized his friend was gone.”

“Buried in the snow somewhere, I’d imagine,” Stillwater mused.

“Yes. And as he walked only for a short way after we left home, that somewhere is back in Dream Valley,” Vanguard added.

“Was this the Puffalump we gave him?” wondered Floral Breeze.

“Yes, it was. He’s loved it since he first set eyes on it.”

“I know it meant a lot to him,” smiled Floral Breeze. “I’m glad I stocked up on those toys when Ivan’s had their clearance sale of outdated merchandise. I’m giving one to Cascade this Christmas, but his is an elephant rather than a cat.” She looked toward the Christmas tree. “It’s wrapped and waiting.”

“If Banderol needs it for comfort tonight, I’m sure Cascade wouldn’t mind if he made use of it,” offered Morning Dew.

“Thanks,” breathed Sugarberry. “We might have to take you up on that to insure peace on earth this night.”

* * *
“Baby Noddins,” Frostflake reminded her daughter as Archer answered the doorbell, “remember that Baby Curlylocks is feeling down because her dad didn’t make it home for Christmas. Make a special effort to help her cope, would you, dear?” Frostflake had invited the neighboring family to join them for Christmas Eve festivities when she had learned that Canteen had been snowbound while away on a business trip, leaving his wife, Curly Locks, and the three offspring– Baby Curlylocks, Crinkle, and Catkin– alone on this special night.

“I’ll try, Mommy,” Noddins promised, taking a tentative step on her still tender hoof.

“Good girl,” Frostflake said, ruffling her daughter’s mane. “And try not to end up at the bottom of a pile of ponies,” she teased.

Baby Noddins was soon set upon by Crinkle, two years her senior, asking her for information concerning a new filly at school; so between him and the bevy of cousins romping through the house, it was some time before she could concentrate her attention on Baby Curlylocks. Noting that the young pegasus was rather downcast even amidst the party atmosphere prevailing, she invited her friend to escape to her bedroom for a quiet talk.

“Your dad can’t get home tonight, can he?” she asked as Curlylocks stood gazing out the window at the constant stream of snowflakes.

“No. He’s still in Hayton.”

“That’s not so awful far. Once the snow stops and the paths are cleared, he’ll be here in no time.”

“Yeah. But he’s not here for Christmas Eve; even if he can get home tomorrow, it will be late in the day, Mom said.”

Noddins thought about her own father downstairs, and she realized that he took his steady presence for granted. He was always there when she needed him. “I wish your dad was here, too, Curly; he’s probably missing you as much as your missing him.”

“I know,” Curlylocks sniffed as a tear escaped down her cheek.

“I don’t think he’d want you to cry.”

“He talked to each of us kids on the phone after he told Mom he couldn’t get home; he said I was to think of Baby Jesus in the stable, just like he’d be doing, and that would bring us all together.”

“I wonder if it was snowing the night Jesus was born,” wondered Noddins, going to stand next to her friend at the window. “If it was snowing like it is now, I suppose the stable looked pretty cozy to Mary and Joseph.”

“I wouldn’t want Daddy to be out in that cold snow,” admitted Curlylocks. “At least I know he’s safe and warm in his motel.”

“And when he gets home, he’ll want to hear everything you did.” She coughed, adjusting her voice to sound similar to a parental scold. “... and he won’t want to hear that you spent your time cryin’.”

Curlylocks turned and hugged Noddins. “I’ll try, Noddy. But sometimes it just seems so empty without him.”

Looking over Curlylocks’ shoulder, Noddins caught sight of the Puffalump that Teddy had given her lying on the edge of the bed where she had left him after her nap. “I know. You can have this cat that Teddy found and gave to me this afternoon when I hurt my hoof skating. It made me feel better; now it can do the same for you.” She grabbed the floppy animal off the bed and thrust it into Curlylocks’ hoof. “Whenever you start missing your dad, just hug Puffy!”

Looking at the perpetually happy face of the cat, Curlylocks grinned back and crushed the toy to her chest. “Thanks, Noddy.”

* * *
Quietly so as not to disturb her still sleeping husband, Sugarberry eased herself out of bed early Christmas morning and went to the window to check on the conditions outside. The wind had died down, but not before sculpting wave-like drifts of snow over the landscape that made effective barriers to pony traffic. At this hour, no one had yet ventured out to face the task of clearing the snow away, so the view from the window was of an unspoiled expanse of pure whiteness as far as the eye could see. Snowflakes were still falling; but without the wind to drive them, they floated and seemed to grant a peacefulness to the panorama that softened the cold, hard edges of the wind-sculpted drifts.

After soaking up the Christmas-card beauty of the view, Sugarberry turned her attention to the snug, makeshift bed where Banderol slept. Sleeping on his tummy, the profile of his face was a picture of perfect contentment. What happy dream is he entertaining? she wondered.

The foal had enjoyed Christmas Eve spent with his grandparents, aunt and aunt-to-be, uncles, and little cousins; but as bedtime approached, he had begun to feel the loss of his beloved Kitty-Kitty. He had crawled onto his mother’s lap and looked at her so woefully that Sugarberry had been hard pressed not to march straight back to Dream Valley regardless of the raging weather outside. She had settled for hugging her son and sending a beseeching glance at Vanguard to fish Cascade’s gift from under the tree so that Banderol might find comfort in the stand-in Puffalump.

Not to be pacified so easily, Banderol took one look at the blue elephant and buried his face in his mother’s mane, refusing even to acknowledge it. It was only after Banderol could no longer fight sleep that he accepted Cascade’s Puffalump into his forelegs, too tired to notice the deception, only recognizing the feel of the familiar smooth fabric that spoke to him of Kitty-Kitty. He slept with visions of sugar-plums dancing in his head and with one little hoof protectively on the Puffalump. Sugarberry gently brushed a hoof over the foal’s soft mane.

“Merry Christmas, sweetheart,” Vanguard whispered in the mare’s ear.

“Merry Christmas,” the mare smiled, turning to slip into her husband’s embrace. “How’d you sleep?”

“Very snugly. My old bed never felt so good as it does with you by my side.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “But how about you? Did I sleep through any of Banderol’s complaints?”

“He slept well, too. I heard him squirming a couple of times, but he only needed his blanket tucked in tighter; and he went right back to sleep.”

“And how goes the blizzard?” asked Vanguard, glancing toward the window.

“The wind is gone, but there’s plenty of snow out there.” They moved to take in the view, only to find that Whirlpool was now up and shoveling a path.

“Oops! I better get down there and help,” Vanguard noted.

“And I should report for kitchen duty,” acknowledged Sugarberry. “You shovelers are going to need a hearty breakfast.”

“And some warming up,” teased Vanguard, enveloping his wife in a bear hug.

* * *
Dream Valley was no less buried in snow than Woodlawn, and ponies across town scurried to clear paths through their neighborhoods and to the point of particular importance on this holy day– church. The weather may have stymied the Christmas Eve community celebration of Christ’s birth, but it would not succeed for a second day in curtailing that profound activity as ponies fought the drifts and the arctic temperatures to make their way to church to adore the newborn Priest, Prophet, and King.

* * *
Curly Locks and her family made it a point to view the delayed living nativity at the park which was held in the late afternoon of Christmas day due to the inhospitable weather on Christmas Eve. Baby Curlylocks’ thoughts were never far from her father, who, she hoped, would join them for at least the waning hours of this special day, although her brothers had made a point of buoying up her spirits throughout the day.

Sixteen-year-old Catkin and fourteen-year-old Crinkle, in the company of several other neighborhood colts and fillies, had enticed their sister to join them in constructing a snow village of forts, igloos, and castles in the backyard after a hearty Christmas dinner. Their efforts had created a magical winter setting that called forth many boisterous scenarios to be acted out by the young ponies, fully occupying several hours with strenuous exercise that kept worries at bay and resulted in cold, hungry participants who were nonetheless extremely pleased with their efforts.

By the time they had been warmed and refreshed themselves, it had been time to set off for the re-enactment of the first Christmas. Baby Curlylocks hung close to her mother with the Puffalump snuggled close to her side for reassurance and for a little added warmth; she also found that her muscles ached from the exertion of mining snow blocks and tunneling through the drifted snow. Only the sting of the cold air kept her from falling asleep on her hooves.

The representation of the Holy Family in the humble stable at Bethlehem served to reawaken Baby Curlylocks to the joy and peace of the day; as she stood, her eyes riveted to the actions of the characters in the living drama, she felt a soft touch on her shoulder and instinctively knew the cause.

“Daddy!” she cried, twirling around to gaze up at her male parent, her eyes a-twinkle. “You’re back!” The stallion was nearly bowled over as the filly jumped into his forelegs.

“Of course I am, princess,” he said as he regained his balance. “The snow may have slowed me down, but it couldn’t stop me completely.”

“I missed you so much!”

“As I did you,” Canteen said, kissing the top of his daughter’s head, then releasing her enough so that he could draw his wife into the hug. “I missed you all.”

Crinkle and Catkin left a group of their friends to welcome their father, and soon the family was on its way back home with Baby Curlylocks anxious to watch her father open his waiting gifts from under the tree. Her sore muscles forgotten, she bounced between her mother and her father with Puffy jouncing at her side.

“Wait ‘til you see the neat winter village we made in the backyard,” she enthused.

“It’s quite an impressive sight, Dad,” Catkin verified. “This snow is awesome.”

“The voice of youth,” he sighed with a wink at his wife. “I’d be more likely to label it as awful.”

They were nearly home when Curly Locks pointed out their neighbor, Gavel, shoveling his front walk. “Gavel’s still recuperating from that surgery he had,” she exclaimed. “I thought he was supposed to take it easy for awhile yet.”

“He looks like he should be in bed,” Canteen concurred, noting how the stallion had to stop and rest between every shovelful of the heavy, white stuff. He looked back to see Crinkle and Catkin lagging behind, deep in some discussion; when they noticed their father’s penetrating gaze, the two teenagers hurried to catch up.

“What’s up, Dad?” Catkin asked.

Canteen nodded in Gavel’s direction; the stallion had been greeted by Curly Locks and Baby Curlylocks and now stood leaning heavily against the shovel. “You two wouldn’t mind shoveling the walk for Gavel, would you?” he queried. “I can well imagine that Sadie got on her high horse and browbeat him into...” Canteen stopped and looked at his sons guiltily. “Forget I said that. Let’s just find out just how many other chores Gavel has on his agenda; if we all pitch in, we can get them out of the way in no time.”

“No problem,” Crinkle said, already on his way to relieve Gavel of his current chore. Canteen and Catkin followed and arrived in time to hear the stallion explain his dilemma.

“Sadie’s busy in the kitchen; Roy called, saying he’ll be here later and that he’s bringing some friend of his.” Seeing Canteen, Gavel grinned. “I thought you were stuck up in Hayton.”

“Only a temporary delay; but what about you? Aren’t you supposed to be convalescing?”

“Well, now, you know how Sadie is. Once she found out that Roy was bringing some stranger over to the house, she got all riled up and wanted things to look right... which meant she had to start cleaning and fixing food right and left. And then she started noticing how some things needed doin’ outside.” He waved a hoof in Crinkle’s direction as the colt divested the path of its white crystal layer. “‘Shovel the walk,’ she said... and fill the bird feeder, and haul in some wood for the fireplace. Excuse me, but I’ve really got to sit down.”

The stallion was looking rather pale and his hooves trembled as he allowed Canteen to guide him to the front steps and assist him in sitting. “Just got to catch my breath,” Gavel said. “Haven’t quite got my energy back since the surgery.”

“You’re rushing your fences, Gavel. You should have called for someone to come over and take care of these things.”

Some color was beginning to return to the stallion’s cheeks as he admitted, “Sadie thought the exercise would be good for me.”

Canteen looked at his wife over the top of Gavel’s head and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that sounds like Sadie, all right.” Turning his attention back to Gavel, he suggested that they go in the house to get warmed up while the boys took care of the work. Leaning on Canteen’s foreleg for support, Gavel made it inside with the mare and filly following behind. They had just gotten Gavel comfortably situated on the sofa when an energetic mare came into the room from the direction of the kitchen.

“I thought I heard voices,” she said, flashing a speculative glance at her visitors. “I suppose you’re making Christmas calls.” Her eyes swept across the carpeting. “Hope you all haven’t tracked in a lot of snow. I just finished straightening up.” She leaned over to pick up a scattering of melting snow. “Tsk, tsk. Isn’t that just the way it goes.” She fixed a hard stare on her husband. “Don’t tell me you haven’t finished the walk yet. Roy and his friend’ll be here any time now.” She looked out the window and saw Crinkle and Catkin busily taking care of the errands she had sent her husband out to do. “I suppose those two will be tracking through the living room next.”

“Merry Christmas to you too, Sadie,” Canteen drolly interjected. “The boys are taking care of the walk and the firewood; Gavel isn’t up to heavy work just yet.”

“And I’m supposed to do everything around here?” Sadie retorted. “As if it isn’t bad enough that this storm had to throw a wrench into our plans. Roy couldn’t make it yesterday, and now he calls and says someone will be coming with him because he hasn’t got anyplace else to go. There’s just no end to it, I say. Nothing merry about it at all.”

“Maybe I could help you...” Curly Locks began, but Sadie would have none of that.

“I don’t need any help, missy. In fact, I’ll be gettin’ back to my dinner preparations right now.” She sniffed and turned her back on the rest of the ponies, disappearing into her domain.

Curly Locks smiled at Gavel. “Maybe I could get you something warm to drink.”

“You’re brave enough to go into the lioness’ den?” he teased.

“For you, yes,” the mare replied and went to fulfill her errand.

Baby Curlylocks moved to sit next to Gavel, a look of confusion on her face.

“What is it, little sweetie?” the stallion asked, noticing her close regard.

“Why doesn’t Sadie ever smile?” she asked.

Gavel chuckled while Canteen shook his head in dismay over his daughter’s forward question. “Smiling doesn’t come easy for Sadie, does it?” He sat in thought for awhile as if he had never pondered this particular question before. “Sadie likes to keep busy, so I guess she doesn’t have time to smile,” he finally determined. “It’s not that she’s not happy, mind you. She is... she just doesn’t show it the same way as the rest of us do.”

“Are you happy?” Baby Curlylocks quizzed, obvious doubt in her voice. Canteen groaned and dropped his head onto his hooves, but Gavel’s eyes sparkled

“I fell in love with Sadie many, many years ago; I imagine we’ve both changed over the years since those days. But am I happy? Yes, I think I am. At least, I’m content.”

Baby Curlylocks didn’t seem to be convinced, but her mother arrived with a steaming mug of hot chocolate for Gavel and a sliced apple. “Just what the doctor ordered,” she smiled, setting the food on the coffee table ahead of him.

“None for yourself?” queried the stallion with a lifted brow.

“I risked life and limb for this much,” giggled Curly Locks. “And besides, you should rest after you finish this snack. I’ve made Sadie promise to let you get some sleep before Roy arrives.”

“Always an angel,” Gavel sighed, his eyes twinkling at the mare. “Thanks to all of you for helping me out.”

“Next time, call before you risk your health,” Canteen commanded.

“I would have this time, but I didn’t want to bother you today of all days.”

“You’d never be a bother, Gavel... especially today,” Curly Locks said, kissing the stallion on the cheek. “Now, eat; and then lie down and cover up with this throw. I don’t want to hear that you’re back in the hospital tomorrow.”

“Yes, m’dear.”

Canteen and Curly Locks were on their way out the door when Baby Curlylocks ran back to Gavel. “Here,” she said, shoving the Puffalump into his hooves. “Puffy will always have a smile for you.” She reached up to hug the stallion, then raced to catch up to her parents.

Gavel looked long at the floppy friend he had just inherited, then grinned and followed Curly Locks’ orders to eat and sleep. When Sadie checked on him later, she stared in amazement at the childish plush toy cradled in Gavel’s forelegs. She walked to the creche that rested on the mantel and picked up the swaddled babe, glanced from it to her sleeping husband... and smiled.

* * *
The house of Floral Breeze and Whirlpool in Woodlawn had been a busy terminal of comings and goings throughout Christmas Day as religious, then familial, celebrations took place. Banderol had abandoned the elephant Puffalump upon awakening, giving his mother a determined, “No Key-Key,” for his reason; but with so many relatives– and especially with Droplet– to entertain him, the toddler colt had no troubled times. Icon and Splotch had even taken the little ones outside to revel in the winter wonderland, bringing them back inside only when their own hooves were numb from the cold.

Floral Breeze and Sugarberry watched from the window as Icon aided Droplet and Splotch guided Banderol in a rather pathetic snowball fight which soon blossomed into a full scale artillery match as the two adult ponies abandoned the foals to concentrate their respective barrages at each other. It was at this point that two cousins, Biscuit and Petal– along with Petal’s good friend, Caravel– showed up and added some real fire-power to the battle. The foals soon became pawns in a hostage situation that thwarted the stallions’ efforts to decimate the mares’ position and ended the hostilities on a laughing note.

“Splotch seems to be enjoying her forced stay in Woodlawn,” Sugarberry noted as the mare gave as good as she got when a minor skirmish was renewed between her and Icon on the snowball battlefield.

“She’s quite adaptable once she lets go of her determination to have her own way,” Floral Breeze revealed. “Thankfully, she and Icon have succeeded in working through the rough spots.”

“That reminds me that Chocolate Chip’s friend in New Pony, Xavier, is from Splotch’s hometown; they went to school together.”

“You know what they say... it’s a small world. You’ll have to remember to ask Splotch about her recollection of Xavier.”

“I intend to; from what I could gather from Chocolate Chip, Xavier remembers a rather outspoken, independent filly... which seems to support the reality. It will be interesting to see if Splotch concurs with Chocolate Chip’s assessment of Xavier.”

“How is Chocolate Chip settling into her return to Dream Valley?”

“Very well,” Sugarberry grinned. “I’ve never seen her so happy... or so satisfied with her life. She has a lot of wedding plans to make, of course, on short notice; but she has everything under control.”

“She and Wigwam are getting married next month?”

“Yep. On January 31.”

“Let’s hope that the weather will be on better behavior for that occasion.”

Sugarberry laughed. “Wigwam is undaunted. He says that nothing will interfere with this wedding.”

“What’s this about a wedding?” a voice asked from behind the mares.

“Velvet!” Floral Breeze rushed forward to hug her sister, regardless of the fact that the two mares had stood outside the church talking earlier. “I didn’t hear the doorbell.”

“Stillwater saw us coming up the walk and admitted us in fine style.” Velvet turned her attention to Sugarberry. “It’s so good to see all of Floral Breeze’s family here for the holiday.”

“She has her hooves full with all of us on the premises,” Sugarberry smiled. “And I imagine your house is rather quiet with Chiffon gone to New Pony with Tribute.”

“It’s a good thing they left early to make a long stay of it,” Velvet shivered. “I hope the weather allows them a good trip home.”

“We were just discussing the weather’s influence on winter activities,” shared Sugarberry. “The wedding you overheard us mention is to be in January.”

“Oh.” Velvet looked relieved. “I was afraid something had come up to complicate the plans for that June extravaganza we’re planning, Floral Breeze.”

“As if we don’t have enough complications,” grinned Velvet’s sister.

Icon and Chiffon were marrying their respective sweethearts at a double ceremony at the start of summer; and although Velvet and Floral Breeze saw eye-to-eye on almost everything, the added influence of Splotch’s parents in Happy Hollow and Tribute’s parents in New Pony did indeed tend to entangle matters.

“From what I’ve been hearing, you could almost make this wedding day a triple ceremony,” Sugarberry teased as the three mares made themselves comfortable in the cozy sitting area.

Both Velvet and Floral Breeze looked skyward as if for divine help. “That possibility has been bandied about, but only to torment us,” Velvet admitted. “Fitting Icon and Chiffon’s cousin into the mix would entail an entire new planning strategy.”

“Fortunately for us, Silver Frost and Blake haven’t committed themselves yet. From all appearances, they’re still dating other ponies upon occasion,” revealed Floral Breeze.

“Although anyone can tell by seeing the two of them together that they think the world and all of one another,” Velvet added thoughtfully, then shook her head as if unable to figure out that puzzle. “Tribute was very pleased to have been with his brother and wife when their foal was born.”

“Well, he was with his brother, at any rate,” giggled Sugarberry. “Fern wasn’t quite so fortunate.”

The birth of Fern and Toby’s first foal on Thanksgiving Day was well into becoming a Dream Valley legend. All of Toby’s family had been invited to spend that holiday in Dream Valley due to the fact that, well, Fern was due. With all the family congregated under one roof, there were three doctors (Toby himself; his brother, Tribute; and their father, Andrew) ready and willing to attend to the mare when the foal decided to come. The situation was well covered, but fate intervened.

With Fern napping after the traditional Thanksgiving feast, Toby and Tribute had accompanied their brother-in-law, Copper, to the park with his two children, Patina and Quill, while Chiffon and Tendril made a visit to Sugarberry at her home. Andrew and Ribbons n’ Lace watched over the sleeping Fern, but when Fern’s Aunt Maisie called from the home of an ailing friend with the news that Crescendo was complaining of some chest pains, Andrew had immediately responded, leaving Fern in Ribbons n’ Lace’s sole care. The mare checked on Fern once more before settling down to finish knitting the booties on which she had been working, only to be brought to her hooves when an agonizing groan sounded from the bedroom, signaling an end to a quiet afternoon.

Ribbons n’ Lace rushed to Fern’s side, found the situation critical, placed a call to Sugarberry to send word to Toby at the park, then called Maisie to alert her to the complication, took one more look at Fern, and called Dr. Aurora who was, thankfully, accessible, and then buckled down to do what she could for her daughter-in-law. By the time Toby and Tribute arrived back on the scene, Dr. Aurora had already assisted Fern in delivering a healthy and entrancing little filly who won her father’s heart in an instant.

“Baby Frond is a little angel,” Sugarberry related. “She has her mother’s sweet disposition.”

“If I remember correctly, Toby missed Banderol’s birth, too,” Floral Breeze grinned.

“Yes, and Vanguard will never let him forget that; Dr. Neil is quite... unorthodox... shall we say.”

As the group from the backyard now entered the house, Velvet could now determine that Dr. Neil’s delivery of Banderol over thirteen months ago had been a well-dealt event as that little foal bounced into the room and scampered to his mother, his cheeks red with the cold and his eyes dancing in sheer delight over his outing.

“You’re as cold as ice,” his mother remonstrated as she scooped the foal into her forelegs.

Icon trailed in, a towel in his hooves and a grin on his face. “Bandy has a mean throwing leg,” he said, draping the foal in the towel, then confiscating him from his mother to move closer to the fireplace’s heat and rubbing some warmth back into the colt’s extremities.

“From what I saw,” Sugarberry taunted, “you were the mean one, pelting Splotch the way you did.”

“She showed no mercy,” defended Icon, shaking more melting snow out of his mane, causing Banderol to giggle. “She and Petal were like Amazons.”

“I’ll verify that with the girls while I warm some cider,” Sugarberry winked as she left the room.

Velvet and Floral Breeze remained to watch Icon administer his care to Banderol. After thoroughly drying the colt, which amounted to more of a tickling bout, Icon stood Banderol in front of him and smoothed out his damp hair. Banderol, in turn, begged for his uncle to hold him, which Icon willingly did, setting himself in the rocking chair and drawing an afghan over the foal.

“Okay, Bandy, should Uncle Icon tell you a story?” the stallion asked. Getting no response, he looked down at the precious face pressed against him and found that the foal was already fast asleep. “Sleep tight, little fella,” he whispered, settling Banderol more comfortably in his forelegs.

“Let me take him up to his bed,” Floral Breeze offered, but Icon shook his head.

“I think I’d rather hold him awhile, Mom,” he softly replied. He grinned up at her. “But you could bring me some of that hot cider when Sug gets it ready.”

“Oh, my. We should be helping out in the kitchen, Velvet.” The two mares bustled away, leaving Icon to study the beauty of a sleeping child.

* * *
“Well, Roy, your friend looks as if he’d rather be anywhere else but here.” Gavel and his son were settled comfortably in the living room while Sadie continued to putter in the kitchen. Roy and Dangler had arrived just in time to sit down for the meal Sadie had prepared, barely missing the serious scold they would have received if Sadie had been forced to set back the supper hour.

Dangler, Roy’s closest friend as well as his partner in a home-remodeling business, had been a sorry companion on this trip owing to a disappointing answer to his proposal on Christmas Eve to a longtime sweetheart. The mare had blithely informed him that she had met someone else; and though she would always value his friendship, she could not look upon him as a marriage partner. Dangler had been devastated and was now sunk in a dark study.

“I think he’d be just as down no matter where he spent Christmas this year,” Roy admitted.

“It’s too bad I’ve been laid up; we could have planned for some livelier entertainment for the lad,” chuckled Gavel. He sat on the couch with the Puffalump Curlylocks had given him sitting by his side.

“Trust me. The only thing that will help Dangler now is to get back to work. He can take out some of his disappointment on a few nails.”

“Your business is doing okay?”

“We’ve been swamped all fall, what with ponies wanting to winterize their homes and make improvements before the holidays. Things’ll slack off now a bit, but we have one major renovation lined up that will keep us occupied.”

“I wish I was fit to work alongside of you,” sighed Gavel.

“Terry is the one you should be mentoring,” Roy said, referring to his older sister who had followed her father’s profession as a lawyer. As a teenager, the filly had never seen eye-to-eye with her mother and had long since escaped to New Pony to pursue her career out of the range of her mother’s sharp tongue.

“Your sister doesn’t need... or want... my help,” Gavel admitted. “She called, however, last evening, and wished us a Merry Christmas. She’s at some tropical resort for the holidays.”

“Figures,” snorted Roy. “Always too busy for family.”

“She’s doing just fine for herself,” Gavel defended his daughter. “It’s Dangler you should be thinkin’ about just now.”

Roy sighed. “I suppose you’re right. Would you and Mom mind if Dangler and I went over to see Tripper? He said he’d be home.”

“It’s okay with me, son. I’ll probably be asleep in a few minutes anyway,” he grinned.

* * *
It was late when Roy and Dangler got back; Sadie had gone to bed in a huff when she learned her son would rather spend his time with an old classmate rather than with his parents. Gavel had borne the brunt of her lecture on the thankless job it was to cook and clean and launder only to have your offspring eat and run like some thankless clod. When she had marched out of the room, Gavel had taken up the Bible to read the Christmas story– finding the Puffalump to be an absorbed listener– one more time before leaning his head back to watch the dying flames in the fireplace.

He was startled from his sleep as Roy and Dangler entered the house, even though the two had made every effort not to disturb anyone, hoping to avoid Sadie if at all possible. In that they were successful; but Dangler, remaining downstairs to pace off his still riotous feelings, inadvertently knocked over a magazine rack, waking Gavel who had fallen asleep on the sofa.

“I’m sorry,” Dangler whispered when he realized he was not alone in the room. He rubbed his sore leg and hoped that he would not become the target for more of Sadie’s barbs. It was with a huff of relief that he heard Gavel’s voice instead.

“There’s a lamp just to the left of you,” Gavel offered. “It’ll save you a few more bruises if you click it on.”

As light pooled in the room, Dangler apologized for disturbing him. “I thought the room was empty,” he ended.

“It seems I fell asleep,” Gavel yawned. “I suppose we should both be getting to bed... unless you’d like to talk.”

“What’s to say?” Dangler growled. “The mare I thought I’d spend the rest of my life with has written me off for some hot-shot she met on a business trip.”

“And you don’t want to hear anyone say that maybe it’s all for the best.”

“No, Gavel, I don’t.”

The older stallion sighed as he slowly got to his hooves, the motion causing the Puffalump to fall to the floor. With a sudden inspiration, Gavel reached down and picked up the limp body of the stuffed cat. “I’ll leave you with your thoughts, Dangler, but in the meantime I’ll put you in... Puffy, was it?... Puffy’s care; she’s a very good listener, even when you don’t talk out loud.” He offered the toy to the stallion.

His eyes wide with surprise, Dangler slowly reached out and accepted the pastel purple child’s toy, then bid his host goodnight. Once alone, Dangler stared at Puffy and Puffy stared right back.

* * *
The day after Christmas dawned with new snow falling, but with the advantage of slightly warmer temperatures. Dangler, who had slept little throughout the night, had arisen early while the world was still deep in shadow and had wandered aimlessly just to clear his head, eventually ending up at the park with its white-blanketed lawns and white-tipped evergreens ghostly visible in the still fragile light of day. And the stallion was not alone. Puffy accompanied him.

Finding that Gavel was right about the stuffed animal, Dangler had used Puffy as his sounding board before he had fallen into a fitful sleep. Finding Puffy tangled in his blankets when he made the bed– this act hopefully deflecting any of Sadie’s leftover ire– he had latched on to it absently and found that he still carried it when he was outside the house. Grateful for the filtered daylight, he had nonetheless tucked the Puffalump tightly against his chest on the outside chance he would encounter someone.

The quiet atmosphere of the park with the gently falling snow had a soothing effect on the heart of the distraught stallion. Finding a sheltered spot near a small pond, he made himself relatively comfortable on a cold, hard bench, and allowed his tangled nerves to slowly unwind. He set the Puffalump to face him.

“Well, Puffy, I survived another night, so maybe Trisha jilting me isn’t the end of the world after all.” A stronger breeze caused snowflakes to shower over the Puffalump, creating the effect that the animal had winked. Dangler laughed. “You’re very special, Puffy. I bet you could make a fortune if you went into counseling.” Did the cat smile? “Trisha hadn’t smiled at my jokes in a long time; I guess I should have seen the hoof-writing on the wall.” He picked up the toy, then hugged the Puffalump to him as he fought down another spasm of loneliness. “Well, okay, I’m not out of the woods yet, but I’ll make it.”

Sitting watching the flakes drift through the air, Dangler lost track of the time. The combination of falling snow accompanied by warmer temperatures and along with the fact that it was a vacation day, soon had the houses of Dream Valley spilling out the young inhabitants, anxious for a frolic. Hearing squealing voices from the direction of the sledding hill and at various points around him snapped Dangler from his reverie. Self consciously, he tucked Puffy under his foreleg and stood to make his way unobtrusively out of the park, only now noting that the day was much brighter even with the spitting cloud cover.

Sighing with relief that he had made it past the last rowdy group of colts and fillies playing fox and goose in the snow, Dangler increased his gait, anxious to get back to Gavel’s house before anyone spotted him packing a Puffalump like a toddler. His pace was arrested, however, when he heard what sounded like a muffled sob coming from the lowest branches of a blue spruce. His experience with Puffy having shattered some of his preconceptions of inanimate objects, he heard himself asking the tree, “Is something the matter?”

The sobbing stopped, but only because it turned into a wail. “Santa no brought sled for Christmas!” a wavering voice croaked.

Looking at the tree cautiously as he took a step backward– Ents were mythical, weren’t they?– Dangler found his voice to ask, “It would have to have been one mighty big sled, wouldn’t it?” His glance followed the towering giant’s span into the snowy heights.

There was what sounded like a hiccup, then, “Just a ‘ittle one would do.”

Shaking his head, Dangler leaned down to peer under the branches of the tree to find a huddled baby pony sitting on a blanket of pine needles, tears marring his face. “Um... are you the one without a sled?”

Shaking his head up and down, the little pony sniffed. “Me no sled,” he stated forlornly, his head now going side to side.

Feeling dizzy from following that motion from his tilted position with the snowflakes dancing around him, Dangler stood upright. “Could you come out here and talk?” he asked. His experience with children was almost nil, but he could not ignore the dispirited little tyke.

The lowest branches of the tree ahead of him quivered, then the baby pony appeared, his head down, his ears at half-mast. He brushed his hooves over his wet cheeks, then looked up to see with whom he spoke.

“You stwanger.”

It took a moment, but Dangler managed to decipher the baby-talk. “Stranger than what?” queried a puzzled Dangler. He had very little experience with baby ponies.

“Me can’t talk to stwangers,” the baby pony explained, then closed his mouth tightly.

“Oh. I see. But should you be out here all alone like this?”

“Me wun away.” As soon as the words were out, the baby pony realized he had once more talked to the stranger; and he clapped his hoof over his mouth.

Dangler stooped to the foal’s level. “Why did you run away?”

A big tear sliding down his cheek, the foal had to unclamp his hoof to brush it away. “Santa fo’got me.”

“You didn’t get any gifts for Christmas?”

The foals anguish was too much for him to contain any longer. “Momma and Daddy gave me...” he wailed again, “... ed-oo-ka-shall toys.”

“Edookashall toys?” Dangler scratched his head in consternation. Was he that old that he did not know what kids played with anymore?

“Ed-oo-ca-shall toys,” the foal nodded in the affirmative.

“I’m sorry. I never had any of those,” Dangler admitted.

The foal cast him a look that said, Lucky you. Then, “Momma says they make me smawt.”

Realization dawned on Dangler. “Oh! You’re talking about educational toys... something electronic, I suppose?”

“Yup, all talkie-talkie,” the foal complained. “Me wanna play outside!”

“Hmm... I imagine even Santa can’t go against your parents’ wishes.”

“You know Santa?”

“Well, sort of. And I might be able to talk him into bringing you a sled next year when you’re older.” The foal’s eyes lighted with anticipation, and Dangler realized he had just committed himself to something that he might not be able to deliver.

“You talk to Santa fow me?”

“I’ll do my best.” Then, remembering the Puffalump he still carried, Dangler offered it to the foal. “In the meantime, Santa thought this would do.” At the foal’s look of contempt, Dangler added, “You see, Puffy here will keep you company while you play your educational games. And she... um... he’s a real good listener. If you’re ever alone, he’ll be there for you.”

“A doll?” The little colt almost sneered and then looked wistfully across the park to the sledding hill from which excited chatter carried, muffled by the falling snow. “No sled.” Tears threatened again.

“Tommy? Tommy! Where are you?” an anxious voice filtered through the shifting curtain of white. The foal turned to the sound and visibly slumped.

“Auntie Adie,” the foal, obviously Tommy, groaned. He gravitated behind Dangler and peeked around him as the voice came nearer.

Appearing before him like a phantom materializing from the shadows, the mare reached Dangler. “Excuse me,” she panted, “but have you seen a little c... “ Her words cut off as she spied Tommy’s face peering at her from around the stallion; her tone changed from one of pleading to one of disapproval. “Tom-mee! Why did you disappear like that?!”

“Me wun away!” Tommy informed his aunt bravely, although he sidled closer to Dangler.

“How could you do such a thing?” the mare asked in dismay.

Feeling sorry for the foal, Dangler answered for him. “Tommy was disappointed that he didn’t get a sled this year, and thought he might find Santa and mention that oversight.”

The mare looked at the stallion as if seeing him for the first time. “And just who are you?”

“My name’s Dangler, Miss...?”

“Adalee. I’m Tommy’s aunt. His family has been frantically searching for him.”

“He’s perfectly fine,” Dangler informed the mare, “but he’s disappointed that he can’t ride down the sledding hill like the other kids.”

“That’s no excuse to run off.” She turned her attention to the foal. “Tommy, give me a moment to call your mom, then we’ll go home.” She accessed her cell phone and carried out her task, while Dangler exchanged a commiserating glance with the colt. He winked, hoping to buoy up the little fellow’s courage, then realized that Adalee had finished her call and was looking at him... or more specifically, at Puffy... doubtfully.

“I... I was... just in the park to hand out some Christmas cheer,” Dangler self-consciously stuttered, holding out the Puffalump. “Tommy doesn’t want a doll, but maybe you’d appreciate this cheerful little companion? It... it matches your eyes.” He almost shoved it into her hooves.

“Wh... why, thank you,” the mare now stuttered in return, staring at the purple cat, then lifting her violet eyes to gaze into Dangler’s hazel ones for a moment. “How sweet of you... and for befriending Tommy as well.” She looked away with an effort. “Come, Tommy. Let’s get you home and warmed up.”

Tommy looked up at Dangler with trust. “No fowget... sled next yeaw.”

“I won’t forget, Tommy.” Dangler looked sheepishly at the aunt. “I hope that won’t be a problem.”

“If it means that much to Tommy, I think it can be arranged.” She held out her hoof to the foal and with one last fleeting glance at Dangler wished the stallion a Merry Christmas.

“Merry Christmas,” Dangler returned, then watched them walk away. They were almost swallowed up in the snowy whiteness when he found himself running after them. “Tommy... Adalee... maybe this afternoon I could come over and take Tommy sledding...” Surely Roy would have an old sled hanging about somewhere.

Tommy clapped his hooves in joy. “Oh, please, Aunt Adie?”

“Well... your mother...” Adalee started to say, but was interrupted by Tommy.

“Momma won’t cawe... as long as she don’t haf to come.”

Adalee looked from Tommy’s pleading face to Dangler’ beseeching one and smiled. It was hard to determine who was more interested in the sledding expedition, the colt or the stallion. Suddenly, she realized that she might just enjoy such an outing herself. Clutching the Puffalump to her, she grinned. “It’s a date then... this afternoon, at... let’s say three o’clock?”

The answering grins from Tommy and Dangler were all the answer she needed.

* * *
The farewells to the Woodlawn ponies had been extended as long as possible, but Vanguard and Sugarberry and Banderol had to take their leave in good time to make their way to Berryville in time for the planned family gathering of Sugarberry’s side of the family. A gentle snow was falling, but a brightening of the sky promised a reprieve soon.

Toting his cousin’s Puffalump elephant, Banderol enjoyed walking through the whispy snow for a half hour or so but then begged for his father to carry him, which Vanguard willingly did. Banderol reached across to his mother, transferring the Puffalump to her care. “Key-Key all gone,” he sighed, the look of sadness in his eyes breaking Sugarberry’s heart.

When the family arrived at Strawberry Shortcake and Strawberry Basket’s house outside of Berryville, they found the rest of the relatives already gathered and waiting. Sugarberry’s parents had been joined by their other two daughters and their families: Gooseberry, Grapevine, Wineberry, Huckleberry, Baby Gooseberry, and Loganberry; and Raspberry, Driftwood, Custard, and Cream. Needless to say, there was a boisterous reunion.

“You’re house seems to be getting smaller,” Sugarberry teased her father as the ponies gathered in the living room to chat and exchange holiday experiences. The space was cramped– seven foals had a way of doing that.

“We’ll make do,” Strawberry Baskets grinned. “There’ll always be room for one more.”

“Thank goodness for that,” laughed Driftwood. “You’ll have one more to fit in come July.”

“Another foal?”,”How do you know it won’t be twins again?”,”You’ll have your hooves full!”, were only some of the comments that met that announcement.

“Tabby and Thomas are expecting in May,” Sugarberry shared once the excitement had settled down, “which is fortunate for Faline as her grandmothers seem to have a rivalry going on to garner as much of the little filly’s attention as they can. A second foal may help them to gain some perspective.”

“Or it will make them twice as demanding,” offered Grapevine as he rescued his youngest, Loganberry, who was being set-upon– literally– by Custard and Cream. Banderol, several months younger than these three, stood back as if assessing his chances to enter the tussle.

“‘Twice as demanding’ sums up what it’s like to have twins,” grimaced Raspberry. “This morning Custard spilled his glass of milk at the same time that Cream knocked the flower vase over.”

“Me only wanted to give Mommy a flower,” Cream defended from the sidelines.

“Yes, my love, and it was a very beautiful flower,” Raspberry responded tenderly. She then grinned at Sugarberry. “One of our waitresses at the restaurant gave birth on Christmas Eve; she had recurring dreams the last two weeks that when the foal was born, the doctor looked at the baby strangely, then lifted him for Neva to see: the foal always had a shiny red nose. Neva was gratified to find when the event actually occurred that her little one was perfectly normal.”

“A bright red nose would have made naming the baby a cinch,” noted Vanguard.

“True,” agreed Driftwood. “Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Roan.”

* * *
Adalee’s cheeks were as red as Tommy’s from the strenuous activity of sledding and marching back up the hill over and over... and over. The colt would have been at the sledding hill yet if she had not put her hoof down, knowing just how tired the little guy would be by the time he walked home again. Dangler had helped entice him away from the hill by promising to pull him home on the sled, which was a good enough enticement to lure Tommy away from the still crowded park.

“We had a wonderful afternoon, Dangler. Thanks for giving up your time to make a little boy very happy.” Adalee smiled at the stallion, resisting the urge to tuck an errant lock of his orange mane back into place.

Seeming to read her thoughts, Dangler brushed his hoof across his forehead to banish the stray lock. “I’d forgotten how much fun sledding could be,” admitted the stallion. He recalled Roy’s look of disbelief when he had heard of his friend’s plan to spend the day with a randomly met foal. Dangler had not corrected Roy’s impression of an elderly aunt worrying over the colt. “It was a welcome... escape.”

“Just what were you trying to escape?” giggled Adalee. “Annoying relatives or the leftover turkey?”

A brief look of irritation crossed the stallion’s face but was quickly shrugged off. “Let’s just say it was the daily grind.” A black cloud seemed to settle over him.

What did I say? worried the mare, suddenly feeling cold as the stallion seemed to pull away and set-up an invisible shield that foiled their camaraderie. She was about to ask Dangler to share whatever was bothering him when Tommy interrupted.

“I’m cowd, Auntie Adie. You make hot chocolate?” His squirming on the sled to look back at his aunt unseated him and he found himself sitting on the cold, hard ground.

“Of course we can have some hot chocolate,” Adalee assured the colt, rushing to help him to his hooves and keeping his cold hoof within hers to keep him by her side for the short distance they had yet to go. She grimaced at Dangler. “I think we’d better head for the back door; Tommy’s mother would be better off not seeing her little boy so cold and musted-up.” She uselessly tried to bring his hair back into some kind of order.

“He won’t get sick now, will he?” Dangler felt a twinge of conscience; he had been so content interacting with the colt and his aunt that he had not wanted the afternoon’s fun to end. But at what price to Tommy?

“Me won’t get sick,” Tommy piped up. “Me no like bein’ sick.”

“We’ll get you warmed up in a jiffy,” Adalee assured him, opening the back door to her sister’s house. She stepped back to allow Tommy and Dangler to precede her, and Tommy scurried on in; but Dangler hesitated.

“I should really be getting back to Roy’s...” he began, but stopped when he saw a look of disappointment cross Adalee’s face. He smoothly changed his direction. “... but I’m sure I have time for one mug of chocolate.”

“Great!” Adalee grinned; then realizing how elated she must have sounded, she continued to babble. “We owe you so much for befriending Tommy this morning when he was out all alone. Sis was beside herself with worry, and that made the rest of us nervous, too. You were very kind.”

“You... and Tommy... make it very easy to be kind,” admitted Dangler with a smile that melted Adalee’s heart.

* * *
Puffy spent the day quietly sitting on the sofa. Adalee had experienced such a satisfying afternoon that she had not given the Puffalump another thought since she had abandoned the cat upon returning with Tommy that morning. Now, however, with the day drawing to a close and with Dangler long since gone back to his friend’s house, the mare remembered the impromptu gift the stallion had bestowed upon her and went to rescue the poofy purple pet.

Dangler noticed my eyes, she recalled with a twinge of warmth, remembering Dangler’s comment about how they matched the Puffalump; clasping Puffy tightly to her, she bid her sister and brother-in-law a goodnight before making her way to her own home.

Once away from her sister’s perceptive glances, Adalee allowed herself to relax and yield to some pleasant daydreaming about the handsome stallion that had rescued Tommy from his venture into the park alone. Her lips curled into a smile as she recalled how right it had seemed to be with Dangler, laughing and talking like acquaintances of long standing.

There had been several times when Dangler had seen withdrawn, but those moments had soon passed; the stallion had seemed as hesitant to end the afternoon as she had been, sitting with her and Tommy at the kitchen table eating frosted sugar cookies heavy with sprinkles and drinking hot chocolate until her sister had come into the room to start supper which somehow broke the mood; and Dangler had been anxious then to get on his way.

Adalee frowned. He had left so quickly that she had not had a chance to ask his plans for the coming days. When would she see him again? Her heart lurched. What if she did not see him again, ever? That possibility was heart-rending; but, she realized with a sinking feeling, it was all too probable.

She sighed. At least she had Puffy. The doll would be a reminder of this wondrous day.

* * *
The first thing Adalee saw when she opened her eyes the following morning was Puffy sitting on her dresser; the mare smiled dreamily, remembering the time she had spent with Dangler. She stretched lazily, recalling the warmth of his smile, the color of his eyes– like blue velvet– and the sound of his voice. Her gleanings were interrupted by a knocking on the door.

“Who could that be so early on a Saturday?” she pondered as she slipped out of bed, making a quick stop by the mirror to run a hoof through her hair; she’d slept so soundly it was barely out of place. A frission of excitement ran through her as she anticipated finding Dangler on her doorstep. But she was to be disappointed. It was only Pampas, her neighbor, and his small son, Mesquite.

“Adie, sorry to bother you, but Sunny isn’t feeling well; and I’m going to take her in to see Dr. Toby. I was wondering...” He looked down at Mesquite, and Adalee finished for him.

“You want me to watch Mesquite. Of course I will.” She grinned at the little tyke as she tousled his hair, then swung him into her forelegs. “But just what’s the matter with your wife?” she asked of Pampas, returning a worried glance to the stallion.

“She’s been feeling under the weather since Christmas Day, but during the night she started complaining of stomach pains. I want to make sure everything’s okay.”

“Well, don’t worry about Mesquite; I’ll take good care of him.”

“Thanks, Adie.” The stallion gave his son a hug and a kiss, then hurried back toward his own place next door.

Adalee looked at the little foal who had just entwined his forelegs around her neck. He was not Dangler, but he would have to do. Keeping up with the little tyke would keep the memory of the stallion at bay.

* * *
“Sunny miscarried,” Pampas’ tired voice sounded over the phone.

“Pampas! I didn’t even know you two were expecting again! How is Sunny taking this?” A dull ache settled around Adalee’s heart in sympathy for the young mother.

“She’s very depressed; but Dr. Toby says that physically, she’s fine.” Pampas’ voice cracked. “We weren’t sure ourselves about the baby; it was so soon yet.”

“Oh, Pampas, I’m so sorry,” Adalee mourned. “What can I do to help?”

“How is Mesquite doing?”

“He’s sleeping right now. Do you want me to bring him to the hospital to see his mother? He would cheer her up.”

“She’s resting right now. Dr. Toby said that was the best thing for her. Oh, Adie, she looks so fragile!” Adalee winced at the pain in Pampas’ voice.

“She’ll be just fine,” Adalee assured the stallion. “Dr. Toby will see to that.”

“He can’t bring the baby back.” Pampas’ voice was bleak.

Adalee sighed. There was no pat answer for that. A unique and irreplaceable individual had been denied his mother’s gentle touch and his father’s loving care.

* * *
It was very late when Pampas arrived to retrieve his son and give a report to Adalee on his wife’s condition. “She couldn’t stop crying,” he said. “They gave her a sedative to help her sleep.” He walked over to the couch where Mesquite was slumbering. The colt was tucked in under a warm, patchwork quilt, one foreleg thrown back against the pillow, the other loosely holding a purple and white floppy cat. The stallion said no more as he gazed at the sleeping foal, and Adalee respected his silent musings until he cleared his throat and shook his head as if coming out of a daydream.

“Thanks for watching Mesquite. We’ll make it up to you once Sunny’s back home.”

“There’s nothing to make up,” Adalee assured the stallion. “Mesquite was no trouble; actually, we had a lot of fun together.” She leaned over the sleeping foal to wrap the blanket firmly around him, nestling the Puffalump safely next to his body before Pampas scooped blanket, baby, and all up into his forelegs.

As she held the door for Pampas, Adalee asked, “What time will you bring Mesquite tomorrow?”

“Oh, you needn’t worry. Sunny’s folks arrived this evening.” He nodded toward his home next door where the lights were already glowing. “They’ll take care of Mesquite until Sunny’s back on her hooves.”

“Well, if you need me for anything, just let me know.”

Left alone, Adalee bustled around her apartment, straightening things that Mesquite had disorganized and washing the dishes that had accumulated. Her thoughts were on Sunny and the grief she was feeling which kept her from contemplating the previous day’s sojourn with Dangler; but once the lights went out, she could no longer keep them away. For some reason, the stallion had affected her deeply, and she could not erase the memory of their time together.

She winced when she remembered how hard it had been for her to release the Puffalump to Mesquite; the little colt had seen the featherweight cat sitting on her dresser when she was busy making up the bed; and he was determined to play with it, not giving her a moment’s peace until she had gotten Puffy down for him. How could she deny him this one source of comfort when his mother was unavailable to him? And it had appeased the youngster, keeping his mind away from the fact that his parents had deserted him for the day. When Mesquite had fallen asleep with the animal, she did not have the heart to slip it away from him for fear he would miss it when he woke up.

It was not as if the child did not already have a roomful of stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes; Princess Tiffany, who had semi-adopted the little foal– who was born the previous Christmas at the Royal Paradise where Sunny and Pampas had been caught in a hopeless journey when Sunny’s time of delivery had arrived– could not resist showering the colt with every plush pet that caught her fancy. Adalee suspected that Puffy would lie forgotten tomorrow, but for tonight it seemed imperative to allow the unexpected gift to stay with the foal.

Adalee sighed as she plumped up her pillow. She had not heard from Dangler today like she had hoped she would; and she knew that he was heading home tomorrow. Her common sense told her that she had put more importance on their afternoon together than the stallion did– it was Tommy that Dangler was trying to appease, after all– and it was better that Puffy was not around to remind her of that interlude.

Her heart, however, could not be appeased.

* * *
Sunday dawned warmer than anyone could have expected after the frosty, snowy days just past. Pampas called Adalee to let her know that Sunny would be home that afternoon, so she went by Oakley’s Grocery after church to pick up a simple bouquet of flowers for the grieving mare. While there, she also picked up a few other items that were running low and was searching through the baking aisle for a bag of Macadamia nuts, knowing that Pampas had a penchant for her Macadamia and White Chocolate cookies, when two mares passed down the aisle behind her.

Adalee smiled at the two, but returned to her search. It was only when she heard one of them mention Roy that she became alert to their conversation, as Dangler had mentioned that he was staying with a friend named Roy at his parents’ home. The two stopped near Adalee to pick out some spices, and Adalee found herself avidly eavesdropping.

“Roy didn’t stay long; he never does. A pony brings ‘em into the world and what thanks do you get for it? And he doesn’t stop to think about the extra work it takes to get the house ready for his brief visits. Why, the baking I did! And never a thought for his mother. He brought along that friend of his, too,” Sadie droned.

“I haven’t seen Dangler lately,” Sadie’s companion remarked, choosing her favorite brand of oregano. “He and Roy were always close, weren’t they? ... almost like brothers.”

“That’s a fact,” Sadie snorted. “Where one was, the other was sure to be. You remember Trisha, the pretty little filly that always hung out with them?” The two mares were by now walking away from Adalee, and she turned to catch Sadie’s words more clearly. “It seems Dangler got caught up in the romance of Christmas Eve and asked the gal to marry him...”

The rest of the sentence drifted off as Sadie rounded the corner to the checkout, but Adalee had heard enough. She felt as if she had taken a hard punch and had trouble breathing. Her Dangler was already engaged when he had befriended Tommy and her; he was only being kind... and possibly escaping the complaining conversation of Sadie. She could not blame the stallion for that! He had not found her appealing and witty and... desirable. He had already claimed the mare he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.

Well, so be it. Adalee gritted her teeth. No stallion was worth the sort of limbo she had found herself in since meeting Dangler. From this moment on, she would never think of the stallion again. Grabbing the package of Macadamia nuts, Adalee trounced her way to the checkout. She would never look back. Not ever!

* * *
“Dear, why don’t you take Mesquite to the park? It’s not far from here and would be a pleasant outing for the little darling. He’s been such a good little boy, but it will still be an hour or so before Sunny is officially released,” Sunny’s mother suggested after eating a snack in the cafeteria with her husband and grandson.

Sunny’s father grimaced, but after considering the alternative of waiting around the sterile hospital, the great outdoors beckoned... even if it was in the company of an active little foal. He watched as his wife cleaned the colt’s messy hooves, then lifted Mesquite into his forelegs. “Come on, partner.” To his wife, he said, “See you in a bit,” and he turned to leave.

“Oh,” Sunny’s mother called after him. “You forgot the Puffalump.” She held out the purple and white cat to him.

“No grandson of mine needs a... a doll!” grumbled Grandpa, but the look in his wife’s eyes reduced his complaint to under-the-breath mumbling. Mesquite clutched the animal to him and waved a happy goodbye to Grandma, oblivious of Grandpa’s disapproval of the gossamer lump of stuffings in his hooves.

Grandfather and grandson had an enjoyable walk to the park with the sun warming the wintry air to a pleasant level; the enthusiastic sounds coming from the sledding hill turned Sunny’s father in the opposite direction. He found that the swing-sets were abandoned in the snow-covered landscape, so he set his direction toward them. Finding a pair of toddler swings, he slipped Mesquite in one, then stretched his forelegs. “For such a little fellow, you wear Grandpa out,” he said to the foal.

“Push,” Mesquite commanded, swinging one hoof through the air.

“Okay, okay,” Grandpa agreed. “But first, let’s put this little fluff-pot over in the other swing, shall we?” He pried the Puffalump out of Mesquite’s hooves and plopped it carelessly into the second toddler swing, then returned to his grandson to give him a swell push. Mesquite squealed in delight.

“Mowa, Gwampa, mowa!” he called.

So Grandpa spent the next fifteen minutes pushing the excited youngster in the swing until his hooves began to get chilled standing in the cold snow, and Mesquite’s nose started to run because of the cold air rushing by him.

“Well, ‘Squite, we’d better get moving or your mom will be home before we are. And you want to see your mother soon, don’t you?”

“Momma,” Mesquite responded, practically clambering overboard before his grandfather could grab him.

“Whoa, there!” bellowed Grandpa, catching up the foal. “Your mother won’t be too pleased if I drop you on your noggin.” He hitched the little colt high on his shoulder. “Now, let’s see how quickly we can get home.” Grandpa set off at a brisk trot with Mesquite hanging on to his mane and giggling in glee.

Back in the second swing sat Puffy, alone and deserted.

* * *
The afternoon was waning, a bank of threatening snow clouds building in the west. Without the warmth of the sun, the day had become chill and dreary; and the breeze was becoming an uncomfortable, blustery wind. At the park, the nearly weightless Puffalump, haphazardly placed, tipped further and further with each gust, until... finally... she dropped with a whispered whoosh to the frosty ground where she rested for a moment until another, stronger, zephyr whizzed by, sending her across the crusted snow, only to stop when she careened into a barren hedgerow where she stuck fast.

* * *
Across town, Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Banderol, anxious to make it home before the snow started falling again, hurried toward Dream Valley while keeping an eye on the ground in the hopes of finding Kitty-Kitty, the Puffalump, waiting for Banderol’s return. The realization that the toy could be buried in any of the shoveled banks that lined all the paths caused Sugarberry’s hopes to plummet. By the time they turned onto Fifth Street, Vanguard was wearing a rather terse expression; and Banderol... well, Banderol had actually fallen asleep and could not have cared less in the current moment where Kitty-Kitty was.

That all changed, however, when they reached the dark and lonesome house. With Chocolate Chip off in Neighberry with Wigwam, Garnet, and Wishbone– and Licorice back home at Birdsong– the house was all but abandoned. By the time Vanguard had unlocked the door, Banderol had awaken; and, seeing where he was, immediately thought of his lost Kitty-Kitty. “Key-Key!” he demanded.

Sugarberry looked at Vanguard with wide, anxious eyes. They had both promised their son that his beloved Puffalump would be found once they got home, but they had failed in living up to that promise.

“Banderol,” Vanguard said, dropping down to the foal’s level. “Kitty-Kitty wasn’t waiting on the path like we hoped he’d be, so it will take us longer than we though to find him.”

The little colt’s face puckered up, but before he could make a sound, Fluff and Raptor came streaming down the stairs to extend a very effusive welcome to the ponies that fed, cared for, and loved them. Caprice and Dietrich had kindly volunteered to monitor the cats’ needs over the holiday. Having someone living in Tabby’s old house next door had its advantages, Sugarberry had discovered. Sugarberry had no doubts that the cats had been well cared for in her absence; she noticed that even the floor had been vacuumed, and she smiled– Caprice, without the convenience of electricity in her dirt-floored hut with the Yetis, now found vacuuming to be pure joy; but to see the felines now, rubbing against Banderol until they had him pushed, giggling, to the floor, pointed out that the cats had deeply missed their ponies.

“Vanguard,” Sugarberry said, “while Banderol’s attention is on the cats, I’m going to call Tabby and see if she has a spare Puffalump like Kitty-Kitty. You know how she buys up any she finds at the thrift stores and rummages.”

“Good luck,” Vanguard smiled before setting off to empty the backpacks.

The ringing of the telephone at the mansion, however, was heard only by the menagerie of pets that Tabby had accumulated to share her space. To leave a message was all Sugarberry could do.

* * *
“Tabby, do you think our parents are becoming too possessive of our little girl?” queried Thomas as he and Tabby made their way to Agatha and Hubert’s house where Faline had spent the day. It seemed to him that he had hardly had the chance to see the petite filly since his mom and dad had moved to Dream Valley after their rescue from the Yetis, and the two sets of grandparents began making demands on their granddaughter’s time.

“Oh...” said Tabby vaguely, turning her attention from the array of snowflakes to her husband. “What do you mean?”

“You can’t say that you haven’t noticed how my mom and your mom practically fight for Faline’s time and attention.”

“Who can blame them, Thomas? Faline is an incomparable.”

Thomas grinned. “With you as her mother, she’d have to be. What I mean is, doesn’t it seem like their affection for their granddaughter is turning into more of a contest to see who can win the greatest share of her attention?”

“Come to think of it, Faline and I have gotten quite behind cataloging the new My Little People together because she’s never around,” Tabby considered. “Maybe there is something– ooh!” Tabby tried to focus her thoughts seriously on the matter at hoof, really she did, but her attention was won by the glimpse of a bit of color at the base of the row of hedges that lined the parkway path. “What is that?!” The pink unicorn, her red mane whipping around her face in the wind, scrambled across the snow to fetch the mystery item. “Oh, Thomas, I think it’s a Puffalump!”

The mare held up the crumpled purple and white object to get a better view of it from the nearest light. Shaking it to remove the accumulated snow, she squealed. “It’s the lavender cat from the original 1986 series. I’ll take him home and wash him up and she should sell for a nice amount on eBay. There’s probably a little baby pony out there right now who just lost his and his parents will be frantic to get him a replacement. You know how Puffalumps always disappear– lost in the motel bedding, left behind on the train, dropped off the bridge into the river... why, some are even kidnapped by mean, cruel parents.”

“Um, Tabby, maybe someone locally is looking for this particular Puffalump right now,” Thomas rationalized.

“Then why is it still here?” Tabby stared at him blankly. “Really, Thomas. Don’t be silly. The cat was lying here in plain sight; if someone lost it, all they had to do was come and pick it up.”

Thomas sighed. Sometimes a pony just could not reason with Tabby.

* * *
Having put in a restless night– Banderol had missed Kitty-Kitty worse once he was in familiar surroundings than he had when he was off at his grandparents’ homes under constant entertainment– Sugarberry could barely wait for the time to pass until a reasonable hour had been reached in which to call Tabby once more. She was gratified to hear Tabby’s voice on the other end of the line.

“Tabby, what about the...,” Sugarberry began.

“You’re home already?” Tabby interrupted. “I thought you’d be snowed in for weeks.”

“The paths were passable, but my concern is that Banderol is missing his lost Puffalump. When I didn’t hear back from you, I assumed you didn’t have one on hoof; but do you have any idea of where I might find one... quickly?”

“What are you talking about, Sug?” yawned Tabby.

“My message... didn’t you get it?”

Looking down at the flashing red button on her telephone, Tabby’s eyes opened in realization. “Ooooooh. Sorry, no. Too tired when we got home from Mom’s last night.”

“Oh!” With renewed hope, Sugarberry explained her dilemma again. “Banderol’s Puffalump was lost when we went to Woodlawn...”

“Tsk, tsk, Sug. Puffalumps are elusive creatures, as my experience has proven. Why, I’ve had parents contact me...”

“Tabby! Do you have a purple and white Puffalump cat in your inventory right now?” wailed Sugarberry.

“Well,” hedged Tabby, thinking back to last night’s encounter and trying to remember the details. What kind of egg nog had Agatha served last evening that seemed to crowd out coherent memories of the recent past? And why had she drank any of it? She hated egg nog... But hadn’t she brought home a purple Puffalump? Where was it now? She vaguely remembered taking off a gold necklace...

“Tabby!” Sugarberry’s voice sounded edgy, but it did succeed in bringing Tabby’s musings into focus. She clearly recalled dropping the Puffalump into the laundry bin.

“I did happen to pick one of those up...” she was launching her story when Sugarberry squealed.

“You’re an angel! We’ll be right over.”

* * *
In record time, Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Banderol arrived at Tabby and Thomas’ mansion. They were no sooner inside greeting Thomas when Banderol struggled out of his dad’s forelegs. “Key-Key?” he asked, peering into the adjacent room.

Thomas raised a questioning eyebrow.

“The Puffalump,” Sugarberry explained, coherently, she felt.

“Last night’s Puffalump?” queried Thomas, recalling the one Tabby had rescued, leading his guests to where the tall Christmas tree graced the front room.

“Tabby said she didn’t get my message last night,” Sugarberry puzzled. “But I called this morning, and she said she had one.”

Thomas knew enough not to get involved. He took the logical route. “Tabby’s in the kitchen; let’s go talk to her.” So with Sugarberry, Vanguard, and Banderol trailing behind, he led them to that warm, cozy area of the home.

“Hey, Sug, Van... you’re just in time for breakfast. Bandy, Faline spent the night at Grandma Agatha’s house, so she’s not here,” Tabby greeted them. “She’s all gone!!”

“Key-Key?” Banderol asked of Tabby.

“What?” said Tabby. She was able to translate Faline’s speech into regular English, but no other baby ponies.

“Key-Key no here?” the colt managed before a tear slid down his cheek.

“Tabby, remember the purple and white Puffalump cat that Banderol always carries with him?” Sugarberry prodded her friend.

“Kitty-Kitty,” added Vanguard.

“Hey, is that what you were talking about on the phone? Yeah, I found one of those last night!” said Tabby. “Didn’t I say that?”

“You found a purple and white cat Puffalump here in Dream Valley?” excitedly asked Sugarberry.

“Yes. In the park.”

“Oh,” a now deflated Sugarberry said. “Kitty-Kitty was lost somewhere between our house and the western edge of town.”

“Maybe we should look at this Puffalump at least,” suggested Vanguard.

“That’s an excellent idea,” said Thomas, glancing at his wife. “What did you do with it, Tabby?”

“It’s in the laundry hamper,” Tabby confessed. “I threw it there last night.”

“I’ll get it,” offered Thomas, heading toward the laundry room while Tabby checked on her omelet. Sugarberry peered over her friend’s shoulder, unable to restrain her curiosity over the excellent fare Tabby was now able to prepare after having been unable to even boil water successfully for the first twenty-something years of her life.

Vanguard kept Banderol’s attention riveted to the entrance of Sophia and Melinda into the kitchen, both cats apparently ready for breakfast themselves.

“Well, here’s the Puffalump,” Thomas remarked, returning with the purple cat in his hooves.

“Key-Key!” laughed Banderol, rushing to Thomas to claim his stuffed pet. He buried his face in the soft body of the toy, then held it up for his parents to see. “Key-Key all back,” he stated proudly.

“Thank goodness!” exclaimed Sugarberry. “Tabby, it’s like a miracle that you found Banderol’s lost cat!” She accepted Kitty-Kitty from Banderol as the foal unselfishly offered to share his happiness. Taking a quick look under the folds of the animal’s neck, however, she frowned. Sending Banderol off to the breakfast nook where Sophia was now guarding the table, she turned to Tabby. “This isn’t Banderol’s actual Puffalump after all; his had an angel necklace around its neck.”

“Oh, that?” Tabby tossed her mane. “I took that off; it would have made a racket going through the washing machine, and besides, it wasn’t original.”

“I put that necklace on the Puffalump,” Sugarberry defended, “as a reminder to Banderol of his guardian angel.”

Shrugging her shoulders, Tabby grinned. “That sounds so typical of you, Sug.” She held up a muffin. “Let’s eat!”

* * *
“I wonder,” said Sugarberry as she and Tabby sat talking after breakfast, “just how Kitty-Kitty got across town on her own.”

“It was awfully windy,” Tabby noted.

“That’s true, but he doesn’t seem to be all the worse for wear. If he was blown about for five days, you’d think he’d show signs of it.”

“Snow’s clean and soft. Ah, for the life of a Puffalump! It must have been fun.”

“I suppose you’re right,” sighed Sugarberry, accepting the fact that she might never know just what had happened; then she brightened. “Hey, maybe I can write a children’s book about a lost stuffed animal on Christmas Eve!”

Tabby rolled her eyes. “It’ll be all sweet and innocent and impossible, I suppose.”

“Well, why not? Christmas is a time for wondrous things. Just look at the birth of the baby Jesus. Like the song says, What a strange way to save the world.”

Just then, Banderol and Faline came rushing into the room with Agatha, Hubert, Vanguard, and Thomas following at a slower pace. Banderol flung himself into his mother’s forelegs while Faline did the same with Tabby. The mares looked over the heads of their offspring to share a tender smile with their spouses.

The birth of the baby had indeed been a strange, yet glorious, way to save the world. And it all came down to one simple thing: Love one another as I have loved you.

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


Chapter 16 of 28
Hang on to the Moment


“How did you get this together on such short notice?” trilled Noreen as she entered Whitehall Place, her husband following. Both ponies were eying the extravagant floral arrangements that had transformed the interior of the mansion into a florist’s dream. Garlands of greenery and white roses cascaded down the open banisters of the stairway. “You’ve outdone yourself, Lena.”

“Thank you, Norie,” smiled the mare. “This is a momentous occasion, you know.”

Noreen could not deter the frown that suddenly marred her face. “Lena, we should be celebrating the engagement of our offspring tonight, not Brietta and some outsider!”

Niles put a restraining hoof on his wife’s foreleg. “Noreen, you agreed not to cause a scene.”

“You made me promise not to cause a scene,” Noreen reminded her husband. “And besides, it’s only Lena I’m talking to, and she understands well enough.”

Lena propelled her guests toward the living room. “I understand how disappointing this is that our dreams for our children never materialized; Norie, but both Sloan and Brietta have made their own decisions in this matter. We can’t force them to love one another when they’ve found their mates in another direction.”

“Just what I’ve been saying all along,” agreed Niles. “Brietta and Sloan grew apart emotionally just as the miles separated them physically.”

“Whatever became of ‘absence making the heart grow fonder’?” snapped Noreen.

“It’s too late now to be talking like this,” chided Niles once again. “Brietta has accepted Dorian’s proposal; and like everything else in the mare’s life, she’ll follow it through with all the fervor she can give it. We can only wish them well.” Niles sighed. “But, like Noreen, I wish things had turned out differently.”

“Dorian has become an important part of this family as you both know; but, yes, I can’t help regretting that things didn’t work out between Brietta and Sloan the way we had always planned they would.”

“They’re plenty old enough to know their own minds,” said Aiden, coming in on the end of the conversation. “And this evening is a celebration of the commitment Dorian and Brietta have made to one another; I want nothing to spoil it.”

“I’ve said my piece,” pouted Noreen.

“And I’ll make sure she keeps her peace,” smiled Niles. “Now, Aiden, how about showing me how those plans of mine are shaping up on the third floor.”

As the two stallions walked off to the stairs, Lena worked to repair Noreen’s wounded sense of justice.

“Colleen and Riley arrived this afternoon, while Glenda came yesterday already from Cascade. Kevin will join her here tonight, assuming he remembered that he was to come; you know how forgetful he can be when his mind is on that newspaper of his.”

“It’ll be nice to see your sisters again; will their families be able to make it as well?”

“Doyle and Dilyn are coming together.”

“What else is new? Those twins were never far apart.”

“Doyle is engaged now, however; his fiancee will accompany them.”

“And what about Dilyn? You once mentioned that she was causing her parents some grief over that poet or artist or something.”

“I believe that’s a thing of the past.

“And will Glenda’s children be here?”

“Oscar can’t make it; his wife is due any day now; but Chandelle and Trevor will be here. In fact, Chandelle came with her mother and is staying in town with a college friend. You know Ruth Baskings, surely.”

“And what about their youngest one... Ross, is it?”

“He’s tied up at school, so he won’t be here. He’s a wild one, I hear.”

“Who else is staying at the house?”

“Edward and Clara Grant from Capital City.”

“They’re the couple that Dorian has chosen to represent his parents at the wedding?”

“Yes; they’re wonderful ponies. You’ll like them both,” Lena assured her friend. Then, glancing at the approach of her two sisters from the direction of the staircase, she smiled. “Here are Colleen and Glenda now.”

After a chatter-filled reunion between Noreen and Lena’s sisters, the mares moved out to the patio which was arranged to accommodate the overflow of guests that were expected in the course of the evening. Clarence, Anna, and Lissy were busy with last-minute preparations along with additional help from Noreen’s recommended caterer.

“Lena, the house is always lovely, but it seems to be at its best tonight,” Colleen complimented.

“I want everything to be perfect; Brietta and Dorian are so happy with each other.” Lena cringed, waiting for Noreen to begin harping on the unfairness of it all; but Noreen held her tongue. Dissension came from another quarter.

“I can hardly wait to meet this Dorian,” admitted Glenda. “He must be quite the charmer to steal Brietta away from... Sloan.” She realized the unthoughtfulness of the statement at the last second and looked regretfully at Noreen.

“Rest assured that anything you’re thinking has already been mulled over by Lena, Aiden, Niles, and me,” acknowledged Noreen. “What Brietta and Sloan are thinking is anyone’s guess. But I’ll graciously admit that Dorian is an excellent fellow.” Noreen rather countered her affable statement by adding, “If he was marrying someone other than Brietta, I’d be a lot happier about it.”

Clarence admitted several guests at that moment, so the mares broke up to welcome those they knew and to make the acquaintance of those they did not. Aiden and Niles returned with Riley, and soon the influx of invited guests began to fill the house and spill onto the patio in earnest.

Upstairs, in the temporary room on the second floor that harbored Brietta now with the third floor level enmeshed in construction disarray, that mare was sitting before her mirror gazing at the reflected image as Lissy drew locks of her mane into clusters of purple curls anchored with teal silk ribbons and accented with deep pink roses and white baby’s breath. She sat tall, almost regally, as she watched the maid– who had a knack at hair design– bring her silken tresses into lavish artistry.

“You couldn’t be more beautiful!” Lissy sighed, tweaking one last curl into place over Brietta’s lavender forehead.

“If that’s so, it’s all because of your talent,” Brietta smiled at the petite maid. “I really appreciate you doing this for me.”

“It’s my pleasure. But I couldn’t turn you out to look like this if you weren’t so lovely to start with.”

Brietta’s eyes sparkled back at Lissy in the mirror. “I do feel beautiful, Lissy. I can’t remember ever being so thoroughly content or happy, and it’s all because of Dorian.”

“He’s one dapper stallion all right.”

Laughing, Brietta remarked, “I’ll relay that sentiment to him, Lissy.”

“Don’t you dare, Miss Brietta! He’ll tease me mercilessly.”

“You’ll love every second of it, and you know it.”

“He does have a way of making a mare feel special.”

“Very special,” murmured Brietta, resting her gaze on the engagement ring.

Following her gaze, Lissy reminded her, “Don’t forget, you’re wearing your jewels tonight.”

“For the very first time,” admitted Brietta. She reached out to the royal blue velvet case on her dressing table and released the catch to open the lid. Nestled inside was the gift her parents had given her on her arrival back home. She reached out slowly, the diamonds dazzling her all over again as they had the day Aiden and Lena had surprised her with their purchase.

“I’ve never seen anything sparkle like they do,” Lissy breathed.

“Aren’t they grand?” agreed Brietta as she lifted the necklace to her neck, allowing Lissy to fasten it discreetly amidst her curls. She slipped on the matching bracelet and the ear rings and looked at herself in the mirror with appraising eyes. “No one will notice me...” she giggled, “...just the diamonds.”

“Oh, no, Miss Brietta. They’ll notice you for sure. And Dorian... well, that stallion is going to be impressed.” Lissy bid the mare stand up and turn around so that she could assess the total look. After adjusting first a curl here and then a ribbon there, she stood back and smiled her approval. “Perfect.”

“Thanks, Lissy.”

“And I better run down to the kitchen to help Anna now; she doesn’t trust anything those extra helpers do.”

“You tell Anna that I want her to have a chance to enjoy at least part of the evening,” admonished Brietta.

Rolling her eyes, Lissy countered, “She’ll enjoy it best if she’s hard at work.” Then, the maid left Brietta to finish her last administrations by herself.

Brietta recollected that she had not applied any perfume and went to look over her choices. Her eyes fell on one elaborate bottle that tried to mimic the brilliance of her diamonds. “Flourish it is,” she said softly. Realizing that she had not recently heard any other hoofsteps go by her room in the guest wing where she was located, Brietta knew that the time was nearing for her and Dorian to make an appearance. She left the quiet haven of the room and walked to a spot near the top of the stairway where she could check on the activity below without being seen herself. She found herself searching the foyer for only one face, that of the grey stallion who had come to represent all that was right with the world.

“Dorian,” she whispered softly, thinking back to the night of her welcome home dinner when she had first met him. His responsiveness from that first acquaintance had become for Brietta a healing balm for the betrayal she had felt when Sloan had turned his back on her. Dorian’s ready acceptance of her and his delightful way of setting her apart as if she was the only mare worth courting had gone a long way to heal the invisible wounds that had marred the mare from the time she had heard Sloan’s words to Finella concerning Brietta– ... the filly who tagged after me... she’s kind of like my little sister.

To be thrown aside so unexpectedly and so blatantly had hurt Brietta more than Sloan could ever know. For the intervening years, she had made sure that her feelings for that stallion would never again be the cause of such total devastation for her. With Dorian’s appearance on the scene, that void in her life created by Sloan had found replenishment. Once more her heart could fly.

The long violet hair materialized through the grouping of ponies at the foot of the stairs, and a pair of dark blue eyes gazed upward.

“Dorian!” Brietta said, a smile lighting her pensive expression.

The stallion lost no time in meeting the mare at the top of the stairs, taking her hoof in his, his eyes holding hers with such a loving touch that Brietta could not breathe. “What have I done to merit such an exquisite mare to consent to be my bride?”

“You have been my knight... my chevalier... and I give you my heart.” confided Brietta, her green eyes shimmery with emotion.

“I give you my heart in return, Brie,” Dorian said, then he grinned. “Just be careful with it, okay?”

“I promise,” Brietta grinned back. “And Lissy was correct, you are totally dapper.”

“Dapper... that’s a good thing, right?” Dorian asked, taking a step closer to the mare.

“A very good thing,” answered Brietta, lifting her face to his.

“Are you two ready?” came Aiden’s voice from the stairway. Two heads swung as one in that direction.

“Miserable timing, sir,” Dorian said, a disappointed look on his face.

Aiden only laughed. “Perfect timing, I’d say. I’ll call everyone’s attention so we can get this party underway.”

As her father walked down the stairs to stand at a point of prominence on the fifth step where he was joined by Lena, Brietta straightened Dorian’s tie and entwined a strand of his mane around her hoof. “This is it, Dorian. There’s no backing out once Father makes the official announcement.”

“You couldn’t get rid of me now if you tried.”

In the limelight, Aiden began his long thought-out introduction. “Friends and neighbors, relatives and associates, we welcome each and everyone of you to Whitehall Place where we are gathered to celebrate a milestone in the ongoing history of the Manning family. This spring saw the arrival home of our only child, Brietta, fresh from the portals of law school and ready to take her place beside her grandfather and me as the newest member of Manning and Associates. Over the past few months she had proven herself to be of inestimable value to each of us there... and to one in particular.

“You are all aware of the close friendship that has existed between Sloan and Brietta over the years, and it seems fitting that it was Sloan who brought Dorian to Whitehall where he proved invaluable to the firm and to Brietta.

“The two young ponies have found each other to be the perfect complement and have made the momentous decision to unite their lives as one. Lena and I take great pleasure in announcing the engagement of our daughter, Brietta Manning, to Dorian Adams.”

Concluding his speech, Aiden turned to the top of the stairs with Lena, and Dorian and Brietta made their descent to the applause of the crowd. Brietta hugged her parents while Dorian shook Aiden’s hoof and hugged Lena as well. When the clapping of hooves had died down, Dorian spoke.

“Aiden was correct in saying that Brie is of inestimable value to me; she has made me the happiest stallion on earth by accepting my proposal, but just so that you know it was sincere, I’d like to ask her the question one more time in front of witnesses.”

Dorian turned to Brietta and, taking her left hoof in both of his– the engagement ring twinkling, between them, asked, “Brie, will you marry me?”

“This is a yes or no question, right?” teased Brietta so softly that only Dorian could hear, her eyes twinkling in competition with the diamonds.

“Actually, there’s only one answer I’ll accept,” Dorian replied in a whisper, his eyes promising retribution for this delay.

“Yes, I’ll marry you, Dorian,” the mare answered loudly enough for the spectators to hear, smiling at the stallion. “Did I get it right?” she queried under her breath.

Dorian did not respond, nor could Brietta tease him with another word. The stallion had swept her into his forelegs and delivered a very intense kiss on those very kissable lips, leaving a slightly inebriated mare by the time he was through.

“Did I get it right?” he mimicked as he released her, taunting her with a mischievous grin.

“Yes,” was all she could breathe.

* * *
The room set aside for dancing was less congested than the dining room where the buffet was set up; and Dorian and Brietta made their way there to catch their breath.

“Your mother knows how to throw a party,” noted Dorian, going to the terrace doors to peer out where a number of ponies had congregated with their packed plates. “Even the patio is full.” He turned back to Brietta.

“Anna said she’d send Lissy to us with some food so we don’t have to fight the hoards,” Brietta grinned. “Are you having fun?”

“Are you kidding? I’ve got the most beautiful mare at the party hanging out with me. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

“Sweet talker you turned out to be. Keep it up.”

From the doorway came a feminine voice. “Dorey! Finally I can get a chance to talk to you!” A yellow mare with bright red hair pranced across the floor and threw her forelegs around Dorian.”

“Dorey?” queried Brietta with a raise of her brows.

“Moppet?” Dorian asked of the mare. “Is it really you?”

“Of course, silly. Who else has hair like this?” She tossed the scarlet mane to accentuate the vibrancy of the color. “I couldn’t believe it when Doyle told me who this party was for... well, the male half anyway.” She turned to Brietta. “We haven’t met yet. I’m Susy, Doyle’s fiancee.”

The sky blue stallion beside Susy shook Dorian’s hoof. “I’m glad to meet you, Dorian.”

“Doyle, it’s a pleasure to meet you, too. And Moppet,” he turned to the red-head again, “who’d have thought you’d grow up and snag someone reputable.”

“Look who’s talkin’, Dorian. From what I remember, you were never one to follow the rules.”

“You were just a kid when I lived with your family. Your memories must be all fuzzy.” He tousled her hair. “Just like your brain.”

“Now you see what I had to put up with,” said Susy, rolling her eyes. “ Dorey and my brother never gave me a moment’s peace.”

“She was a pesky little foal,” explained Dorian to Brietta and her cousin, Doyle. “She’d never listen to anything anyone would say and was constantly badgering everyone she could get her little hooves on.”

“She really hasn’t changed that much then,” admitted Doyle, earning a playful swipe from Susy.

“When are the two of you getting married?” asked a curious Brietta. She had never pictured such a vivacious mare for her rather quiet cousin.

“Next May,” said a new mare in their group, light blue like the stallion. “I’m to be the maid-of-honor.”

“Dilyn! Where have you been hiding?” laughed Brietta. “Your mother said you were here, but I hadn’t seen you yet.” The two mares hugged.

“I was exploring the house,” admitted Dilyn. “I couldn’t wait to see the third floor; that place is going to be fabulous.”

“Sloan’s father took our ideas and turned them into something workable,” explained Brietta. “He really got everything to fall into place, don’t you think?”

“I’d give anything to have a suite of rooms like that for myself,” sighed Dilyn.

“How do you feel about your twin getting married?” Brietta prodded. Dilyn and Doyle had been close as peas when growing up.

“If Susy wasn’t so much fun, I’d be disappointed. But as it is, I think I’ll like having a sister.”

“Mom says you two are getting married in October already,” Doyle noted, looking at Brietta and Dorian. “Yet you’ve only known each other for what... three months?” Susy and Dilyn turned their eyes on the two as well.

“Give us a break,” Dorian said. “It was love at first sight... or at least it was for me. I had to do some fast talkin’ to get Brie to see things my way.”

Shayla and Derry, along with Sloan and Finella, joined the group, and introductions were made between Finella and Brietta’s cousins. Cara and Dwaine drifted over and Egan and Kelli soon gravitated that way as well. Before long, Keri and Bram were with the old school gang as well.

“So did you and Trey enjoy the sunset that night?” Bram asked Brietta when the two had a chance to talk privately.

“Well, if truth be told, Trey had other things on his mind other than the display in the sky,” Brietta grimaced.

“I really hated to leave you out there, but Keri would have it no other way; and Trey is her brother.”

“Fortunately, Dorian was passing by.” Brietta giggled. “It did convince him to pop the question, so I guess I can’t complain.”

“What are you two discussing?” asked Keri, coming to listen in.

“I was asking about Trey,” Brietta said, winking at Bram. “I haven’t seen him around lately.”

“Nor have I,” scowled Keri. “He was supposed to bring us some stuff from an auction he’d attended, but he hasn’t shown up for ages.”

“It makes a pony wonder what he’s up to,” Bram voiced.

“He probably knows I’ll have a thing or two to say to him,” huffed Keri. “Oh, there’s Colly. I’ll go talk with her.” The mare slipped off.

The remainder of the group kept up a steady stream of conversation while other guests came and went, wishing their best for Brietta and Dorian. When the buffet had been gleaned of all anyone could ask for, Aiden and Lena once more took center stage.

“Our musicians are ready to perform, so at this time we’d like Brietta and Dorian to lead us in a dance.”

Everyone shifted to the edges of the room, and the strains of the music carried the engaged couple across the floor as if transported by gossamer wings. On cue, Aiden and Lena joined in, along with Clara and Edward, Dorian’s most understanding foster parents. Applause was heavy when the music ended, but the musicians went quickly into the next number, drawing everyone into the dance. Dorian began that dance with Brietta as well but was interrupted by Sloan, who as best man, was making use of his rights, having arranged for Finella to pair with Derry. Dorian rightly extended his hoof to Shayla, the matron of honor for the upcoming wedding..

Sloan whisked Brietta away. “You’re even lovelier than I anticipated.”

“It’s too late for flattery,” quipped Brietta. “But thanks anyway.”

“I can’t complain when my two best friends have found happiness, can I?”

“No, you can’t. I just hope you and Finella are as happy as Dorian and I.”

Sloan didn’t comment, being caught up in maneuvering the mare safely across the floor. When he could speak again, he shifted to a safer subject.

“Chandelle was saying that she had a pleasant afternoon in Whitehall staying with that Baskins mare; they walked out to the ledge and came to Whitehall Place from there.”

“Chandelle always was an athletic girl.”

They talked of mutual acquaintances until the music ended, and Sloan was escorting Brietta back in the direction of Dorian and Shayla, who had ended up across the room, when they were approached by a young stallion whom they both recognized as Brietta’s youngest cousin, Ross.

“Ross, your mother said you couldn’t make it,” Brietta greeted him with a hug.

“I had other plans, but then I got to thinking; how could I miss your engagement party? I came to wish you both well.” He hugged Brietta and shook Sloan’s hoof.

Brietta looked nervously at Sloan, then back at Ross. “Dorian’s right over there,” she said, motioning for Dorian to pick up his pace in returning to her side.

“Dorian?” questioned Ross, looking vacantly across the room. “Who’s Dorian?”

“My fiancé,” Brietta said a little fiercely, reaching out to the stallion in question as he came up to them and ignoring the snicker that came from Sloan.

Looking thoroughly confused, Ross swung his head from Brietta, to Sloan, to Dorian. “Come again?”

“Dorian, this is my little cousin, Ross. Ross, this is Dorian Adams, my husband-to-be.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ross said, shaking Dorian’s hoof, “but what happened with you and Sloan?” He directed the last part to Brietta.

“Sloan and I are friends, just as we’ve always been.”

“Oh, well, I guess I should have read the invitation Aunt Lena sent. I’d just assumed when Mom said it was an invitation to your engagement party, that it was for you and Sloan. Sorry, Brietta.”

Not knowing whether to laugh or scold the young stallion, Brietta turned to Dorian for guidance.

“Well, Ross,” Dorian smiled, “in this case, Sloan’s the best man, but that doesn’t mean he gets the mare. Brietta and I are the ones who are betrothed.”

“Huh?”

“Oh, Ross, get out of here,” Brietta laughingly said, giving the stallion a gentle push in the direction of the dining room.

“He doesn’t have a clue, does he?” Dorian asked.

“Not a clue,” Brietta concurred.

* * *
The evening was progressing well with Brietta and Dorian circulating through the guests in an effort to talk with every single pony in attendance. Their foray to the patio soon had them parted, however, as Sloan and several other stallions had caught Dorian up in their talk; and Brietta had been swamped with a circle of mares admiring her sparkling gems and extending their best wishes for a wonderful future.

In the midst of the activity, Clarence came to fetch Dorian, explaining to him that there was a phone call for him. Accompanying the butler into the house and then to Aiden’s study where some privacy might be expected, Dorian complained. “Couldn’t you have just taken a message, Clarence?”

“I did suggest that to the caller, but he was quite insistent that his business with you was urgent.”

“I hope this doesn’t entail my early departure from my own engagement party,” Dorian grimaced.

Clarence directed Dorian into the room where the phone waited, then quietly slipped out, closing the door behind him.

* * *
“This is a great party, Brietta,” drawled Trevor’s voice as he came to join the crowd around the mare. “But where’s Dorian?”

“Dorian’s...” Brietta looked around her, expecting him to be withing close range, but he was not. “Where is Dorian?”

“Lost him already,” teased Trevor, shaking his head. “This doesn’t look good, cousin.”

“I saw Clarence deliver a message to him a bit ago,” Shayla relayed. “I’d guess he got a phone call.”

“I wonder who’d bother him here?” worried Brietta.

“Someone who needs a good lawyer, I’d imagine,” said Trevor. “And as I haven’t had a chance to dance with you yet, maybe this would be a good time.” He offered his hoof to Brietta, and she smiled her acceptance.

* * *
“Yes?” Dorian said into the receiver.

“How’s the celebration?”

The voice was gruff; Dorian recognized it immediately. “Why are you calling me?”

“Dorian, you hurt me. Aren’t we good enough friends that you can understand that I’d want to congratulate you on your engagement?”

Running his hoof over the nearly healed cut he had received on the encounter on the path from Capital City, Dorian retorted, “Who’s hurting whom? I recognized one of your goons...”

“Just getting your attention, Dorian.”

“I’ve already given you my answer, Hazard.”

“It wasn’t the right one. Give it some more thought... and keep in mind what happened the other night.”

The line went dead, and Dorian was left with a crackling receiver in his hoof and a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

* * *
Returning to the dance floor, Dorian found his bride-to-be just completing the dance with her cousin and was quick to claim her attention. “Could I have the pleasure of another dance, Brie?” he asked, his smile at seeing her dispelling the feeling of gloom that had settled on him in the study.

“Shayla thought you got a phone call.”

“I did.”

“Anything important?”

“Just an old acquaintance; he’s been badgering me to take him on as a client”

“And he interrupted you here during a social occasion?”

“He’s not known for his good manners.”

“Then tell him to look elsewhere.”

“I have; he doesn’t understand the word no.”

“Maybe you should direct him to Father.”

“I’ll handle it, Brie. Now, let’s forget about business and enjoy the dance.”

“I’ve enjoyed the entire evening; how about you?”

“Every minute... especially that kiss on the stairs.”

“That was the highlight, granted; but I have one regret.”

“I thought you said I got it right!” Dorian stated, looking aghast. “But if you think we should try again...”

“I’m not talking about the kiss,” Brietta laughed. “I was thinking about the bells. They should have rung this evening. It would have been the finishing touch, to hear them ring out to announce to everyone that we’ve committed our lives to each other.”

“It’s a beautiful thought, but you know it won’t come about.”

“We could try to convince Grandfather again; surely he can see that life can’t be ignored.”

Dorian put his hoof to her lips to quiet her. “Silent are the bells, Brietta. Don’t fight your grandfather on this. He seems to be sparring off enough ghosts tonight as it is.”

Caught up in her own happiness, Brietta had failed to notice that Conrad was indeed quite withdrawn as if recalling other events in his life.

“I wonder if he’s thinking about Myrna,” Brietta pondered. “They would have been so happy at this time in their lives, making plans for their own wedding day.”

“I can understand how devastated he was at losing his wife,” Dorian said, his face registering a sadness that surprised Brietta. “The thought of life without you is... well, it’s just unimaginable.”

“No unhappy thoughts tonight,” coaxed Brietta. “They have no place here.”

The music came to an end, and Dorian shook off the doldrums that had plagued him since Hazard’s phone call.

“You’re right,” he grinned at the mare. “Now, tell me again just how much you love me.”

“Bunches, Dorey,” she grinned back at him. “Bunches, and bunches, and bunches.”

* * *
By the time the last guest had departed Whitehall Place and the last overnight visitors had been escorted to their rooms, Brietta and Dorian thanked Aiden and Lena once more for the unforgettable evening filled with so much good will for the coming marriage.

“With the backing of all these wonderful ponies, we should have a splendid married life,” a tired but contented Brietta said, hugging her parents one last time. “And Grandfather, we’re so fortunate to have you to share all this with, too.”

Accepting his granddaughter’s hug with a resigned air, Conrad offered his advice. “Hang on to the moment for all it’s worth.”

He said no more; but it was obvious that he was thinking that all too soon, the happiness of this night would be lost to Brietta and Dorian just as his joy had evaporated when Myrna was taken from him.



Chapter 17 of 28
Betrayal


“Aiden, I’d like a word with you.” Dorian hesitated at the door of the lawyer’s office, but overcame whatever it was that prompted this unnatural anxiety. Walking to the desk as Aiden looked up at him with an occupied appearance, Dorian continued. “I just received a call from a client in Capital City, and he needs to speak with me personally as soon as possible. This will necessitate my leaving first thing in the morning and will take most of the day.”

Slowly, Aiden’s mind made the switch from the case he was examining to Dorian’s words; and comprehension put a frown on his face. “You have a full load scheduled for tomorrow– we all do; you can’t just pick up and leave your engagements behind.”

“I realize this will be an inconvenience, sir, but I really have no choice in the matter. My client has assured me that my presence is needed on the morrow.”

“We always have a choice, Dorian.”

“Consequences determine the course I have to follow; I can’t turn the other way in this instance.”

“What about the consequences to the rest of us here? Sloan will be at court all day, Brietta has a tight schedule of appointments here at the office, and Conrad is overseeing the details of an estate settlement that has already dragged out longer than it should have. Your duties cannot be ignored.”

“I’ve already called the ponies involved and have set up new appointments for next week for everyone except Granger; Brietta’s agreed to fit him into her schedule tomorrow.”

Aiden leaned back in his chair. “It sounds like you made your decision over my authority.”

“I had to. This is a matter of the gravest importance.”

The gaze that Aiden drilled into Dorian was enough to cause the strongest of wills to wilt, but Dorian held that gaze. It was a full minute before Aiden shrugged his shoulders. “If you’ve taken care to cover your bases here, I guess no harm will come of your abandoning us for one day. I wish you a safe journey.”

“Thank you, sir,” Dorian smiled, but his eyes remained sober. He quickly made his escape from the office, sighing a deep sigh as he closed the door. He then set his steps down the hall to Brietta’s office, finding her buried in a stack of files.

“It’s almost quitting time,” Dorian teased, striding across the office and planting a kiss on the mare’s forehead.

“So my father agreed to your hasty departure, did he?” Brietta asked, her eyes twinkling up at the stallion.

“Not happily; but yes, he did agree in the end.” Dorian slipped into the chair next to Brietta’s desk. “I really do appreciate you taking my lunchtime meeting with Granger; your schedule was overloaded as it was.”

“How could I refuse to help you out when you referred to the dire need of your friend in Capital City?” She leaned to pat his hoof which rested on her desk. “Just remember, you owe me one in the future.”

“I owe you a lot in the future, my love; and I intend to take the rest of my life in paying that debt.” The look in his eyes melted her heart.

“I’m going to miss you, even if it’s only for the day.”

“It’ll be late when I get back, but maybe we can have breakfast together Saturday morning?”

“It’s a date.”

* * *
The day had been as hectic as any Brietta had ever known, and even her love for Dorian could not prevent her from silently chiding the absent stallion for his decampment. The morning had gone fairly smoothly, but the added luncheon meeting with Granger had proved to be a disaster as his flirting manner had allowed Brietta no time to recoup her energy for the gauntlet of afternoon clients. In addition, the telephone had not ceased ringing; and Colly, who was swamped with her own work, was directing needless calls Brietta’s way.

Conrad’s disposition did not help matters, either. He was displeased that Dorian had reneged on his duties, and that displeasure spilled over to rile the already dispirited vibes rampaging throughout the offices. And– unfairly– Conrad took his indignation out on Brietta.

“Brietta!” boomed his voice now as Brietta passed his office door with a hoof full of files.

“Yes, Grandfather?” Brietta vowed that she would not lose her temper, but she knew she was near the breaking point. She stuck her head through the doorway and smiled sweetly at the crusty stallion.

“Walter Patridge is on the phone and needs some questions answered; as Dorian’s been handling his affairs, Dorian is the one who should be answering the questions; but he’s not here, is he?” Brietta said nothing as the answer was obvious. Conrad went on. “I checked in the main file but Patridge’s file is not there, so it must be in Dorian’s office. Find it for me!”

“Yes, Grandfather,” Brietta replied meekly and escaped any further wrath as quickly as possible.

Slipping into Dorian’s office, Brietta closed the door behind her with a sigh of relief. At least she had been ordered to leave her own work, so could not be faulted for shirking her own duties. The coolness of the empty office was a pleasant relief, and Brietta allowed herself to sink into Dorian’s padded chair, resting her head back to regain her composure. The lingering scent of Dorian’s spicy cologne engulfed her brittle senses, and she closed her eyes to breath in his essence– but only for a moment; Conrad was waiting.

Seeing the sloppy condition of his desk top, Brietta had to smile. Unbidden, she found herself once again comparing Dorian and Sloan. Sloan was neatness personified, and his office was never untidy; Dorian, on the other hoof, left his work in a random disarray that screamed for order. Searching through the papers and files that littered the desk, Brietta had to giggle as she uncovered a cache of candy wrappers; but the smile diminished as she finished her quest empty-hoofed. The needed file was not on the desk.

Tapping her left hoof of the desktop, Brietta stared at the drawers before her. She was faced with a dilemma of sorts. One of Dorian’s idiosyncrasies, she had learned, was that he had an overriding penchant for keeping his working files to himself. Her mind went back to the one day since she had met him that he had been upset enough to use a curt voice with her– “Brie! What do you think you’re doing?” he had barked at her as she idly flipped through some files in the righthoof desk drawer as they were taking a rather boring conference call. She shuddered just remembering the tone of his voice; she had felt the dread of a foal getting caught with his hoof in the cookie jar.

Stiffening her resolve, Brietta pulled open the drawers one by one, cowardly saving the most obvious file drawer for last. When she had no alternative left, she opened that drawer and quickly scanned the files that rested there. No Walter Patridge showed up, which was a comfort as she would not have to admit to Dorian that she had pilfered materials from his desk. Just as she was about to close the drawer, however, a piece of information sauntered into her brain– the last file was labeled simply W.P. Could that represent Walter Patridge?

Reaching out to take the file, Brietta could almost hear Dorian’s voice calling her name... “Brie!” The impression was so strong that she looked up, expecting to see him standing before her, his eyes smouldering with anger as they had been that day when he had reprimanded her... eyes that showed not only anger but also a taint of fear. The thought slipped into her consciousness like an unbidden virus, filling her with dread to view the contents of the file that now lay unopened on the desk.

“You’re acting like a superstitious dolt,” Brietta scolded herself out loud. Shaking herself of the uncanny feeling that had settled over her, she opened the manila file and stared in disbelief at its contents, leaning over the papers as if mesmerized.

W.P. did not stand for Walter Patridge; it stood for Whitehall Place. Scanning the papers that she had uncovered, Brietta found photos of the house and grounds; interior diagrams showing rooms and levels; drawings of a visualized Whitehall Place with a discreet sign out front that read, “Whitehall Place Acres” depicting remodeled rooms on the ground floor to meet the needs of the golf course projected for the land behind the mansion and updated guest rooms for the remaining two upper floors. The patio had been enlarged and extended to feed off what appeared to be a taproom, and the kitchen area had been modernized to serve a private dining facility. A spreadsheet showing the time frame and the costs was also included.

Brietta stared at the pages of information in shocked disbelief with no comprehension of what was going on around her.

* * *
Sloan, finishing with his court case earlier than expected, returned to the office to find more mayhem than he had ever faced before in these sedate and hallowed halls. He was beginning to think that it had been a mistake not to have simply gone home from the courthouse when Conrad caught sight of him. “Sloan! See what’s keeping that granddaughter of mine! She was supposed to bring me a file from Dorian’s office ten minutes ago, and now she’s disappeared!”

Looking at Colly for verification, Sloan grinned as that mare only rolled her eyes and nodded toward Dorian’s office. Sloan crossed to the door and gently knocked, but received no answer. Cautiously pushing the door forward, he stepped into the room and caught sight of Brietta sitting at the desk as if trapped in some hideous spell; he had seen that stricken look on her face only once before– on that bygone night he had introduced Finella to her at the high school dance. Closing the door quickly, he crossed to Brietta’s side. So engrossed in the information in front of her, the mare did not even realize he was there.

Feeling a stab of fear, Sloan touched her shoulder. “What’s wrong, Brietta?” When no answer came, he swung the chair toward him, forcing Brietta to acknowledge his presence; but she remained entranced and speechless. Putting a hoof on both her shoulders now, Sloan shook the seemingly senseless mare. “Brietta! Talk to me!”

Dreamlike, Brietta lifted her head, her eyes blankly meeting his. She opened her mouth as if to speak but no words came. Suddenly, she dropped her head to her hooves and cried silent tears that convulsed her body in spasms of agonized suffering.

Wanting to pull the mare into his forelegs and kiss away her tears, Sloan had no time to as the office door opened to reveal Colly. Stepping in front of Brietta to block Colly’s view of the distressed pony, Sloan listened to Colly’s news with a stoic face. “I feel like a complete dunce, but I found the file Conrad wanted on my own desk; I’ve taken it...” Her voice trailed off as she realized that Sloan could care less about anything she had to say at this moment.

“Leave us.” Sloan’s curt dismissal did not set well with Colly, but she stepped out of the office and closed the door with an abrupt snap.

From his position immediately behind the desk, Sloan had only to look down to see what had thrown Brietta into such a state. He leafed through the pages in growing consternation, then turned back to confront Brietta. “This is Dorian’s work?” His voice was like a low growl.

“I... I found... the file... in his desk,” Brietta said in a rough voice between uncontrollable sobs. She dabbed uselessly at her wet cheeks with her hooves, and Sloan responded with several tissues that were soon saturated; he gave her the box, setting it on her lap, and pulled up a chair so that he could sit facing her. Waiting until the sniffling had diminished somewhat, Sloan finally spoke.

“If I had Dorian here right now, I’d pound him senseless.”

“Don’t say that,” Brietta breathed.

“And why not? This... this abomination he’s planning for Whitehall Place is unsufferable!”

“We don’t know for sure...”

“Even you have to see what this means! The scoundrel plans on getting control of Whitehall Place for himself and commercializing it!”

Tears began to flow again, and Brietta shook her head. “No!”

“You know it’s the truth or you wouldn’t have been in such sorry shape when I walked in here!” He took hold of her forelegs as if he would shake her again.

“M... maybe it’s not the whole truth, Sloan! Maybe there’s something we don’t know!”

“You can bet there are things we don’t know, Brietta. How does Dorian expect to pull this off?”

“There’s a paper...” She gestured toward the file on the desk, “that documents the fact that Whitehall Place was never officially recorded as the property of the Mannings.”

With a grunt of rage, Sloan dug through the papers until he found one that contained the information that Brietta was referring to. Scanning the legalities that appeared there, he lost some of his fight. “If this stands up in court, Whitehall Place would revert to public domain.”

“What are we going to do?” The eyes that focused on Sloan were so full of distress that he could not help himself; he pulled Brietta forward and hugged her to him as if that embrace would shield her from anything that Dorian intended to thwart her with.

“For starters, we have to get this information to Conrad and Aiden; they’ll be in a better position to know...”

“No, Sloan! Promise me you won’t mention this to them until I have a chance to talk to Dorian.” She pulled back, begging him with her eyes.

“At this point, would you believe anything he told you? I’ve known him longer than you have, and I’m ready to wash my hooves of him this instant.”

“I’ve got to talk to him, Sloan; I owe him that much.”

“You don’t owe him anything!”

“I’m wearing his ring, aren’t I?”

“Brietta! You can’t possibly consider marriage to that scoundrel knowing what you do now!”

Brietta bristled. “You are in no position to tell me who I can or cannot marry!” She stood up and moved around the desk from him.

“I don’t want to see you get hurt by him... any more than he’s already done.”

“Your concern is appreciated, Sloan, but you cut your ties with me long ago; I haven’t been your concern since Finella...”

“Brietta, stop it! You have no idea...”

But Brietta interrupted him. “I don’t want to hear it. I just want some time to think.” She grabbed the file and stalked out of Dorian’s office without a backward glance.

Sloan groaned, sat down in the chair Brietta had so recently vacated, and– bracing his forelegs on the desk– dropped his head onto his hooves in utter contempt for the stallion whom he had called friend since the day they had met those long years ago at Pembroke.

* * *
Assuring her father and grandfather that she would rather work late than face the mess on her desk Monday morning, Brietta bid the two stallions goodnight, warning them that it would be late when she returned home as she was going to eat a leisurely supper in town. Sloan, she noted, had already left, for which she was grateful; he would have no opportunity to disclose today’s awful revelation to Conrad and Aiden over the course of the weekend. Colly, too, was soon ready to leave and reminded Brietta to lock up the office. Brietta was finally left alone with her none-too-pleasant thoughts.

How could Dorian do such a thing? Was his only reason for proposing to her part of his plan to gain free access to the property of Whitehall Place? But why bother if, as the papers said, Whitehall Place was not even the legal property of Conrad and had never been the land of any of the Mannings down through the years since it had been occupied? She turned once more to the sheaf of papers in the W.P. file confiscated from Dorian’s desk and attempted to make some sense of the tangled mess.

One thing was sure– to purchase Whitehall Place and the acreage around it now with the speculation for land burgeoning the price would cost more than Conrad and Aiden and Brietta together could manage. According to the file before her, however, there was a conglomerate of investors who were ready and waiting to swing the deal.

It was beginning to get dark when Brietta finally lifted her head from her study of the myriad words and pictures and rubbed her hoof across her eyes. Noting the passage of time startled her, for the hour was later than she thought. Standing and shuffling the papers into some semblance of order, she slipped the file into her attache case; and after locking up the offices, she headed for a little restaurant that would give her a clear view of Dorian’s apartment.

Feeling like a spy, Brietta took up a seat next to the window; as she saw it, Dorian would have left town at daybreak to arrive in Capital City by mid-morning; assuming his business would run into the afternoon hours, he could be nearing Whitehall any time now. From where she sat picking at her food as if she suspected poisoning, she would see Dorian as he made his way down the street and could follow him to his apartment for a confrontation. She patted the attache case at her side, took a sip of bitter coffee, and sat back to wait.

* * *
Darkness had descended completely, and Brietta had stared out onto the street for so long that her vision was beginning to blur, the light of the street lamps against the blackness of the sky giving her a headache. She was just about to request a refill on her coffee when an approaching pony caught her full attention. A dapper grey stallion with violet hair came down the street, passing directly under a street light for easy identification. Brietta immediately vacated her chair, plopped a hoof full of jangles on the counter, and exited the shop; so quick was she with her movements that she fell into pace behind Dorian well ahead of the gruff stallion that had been following Dorian since his departure from Capital City.

The temperature had dropped since Brietta had gone into the diner, and the cooler air had a bracing effect on the mare that made her hoof steps lighter than she would have thought possible as she followed her fiancé as if he were some kind of criminal that needed apprehension. She touched the engagement ring on her left foreleg for reassurance; he was still the same stallion she had committed her life to, and she would not believe less of him until... until she found out explicitly what he planned to do with the information he had accumulated.

In no time at all, Dorian had entered his apartment, and Brietta stopped for a few moments before she too approached the door. She found that her hoof was shaking as she raised it to push the doorbell. She had barely enough time to gather her composure before the door opened.

It was obvious by the look on Dorian’s face that he had not expected his visitor to be Brietta; he had felt that someone was following him on his return journey although he had been unsuccessful in catching a glimpse of anyone. He shivered, having expected to find a red stallion with black hair and a ragged scar on his face rather than his beautiful fiancee; he recovered his equanimity immediately, however, and reached out to draw the mare into the room.

“I didn’t expect a visit tonight, my love, but I’m more than happy to see you.” He leaned toward her to capture her lips with his, but Brietta escaped him.

Walking to the sofa, Brietta pushed a stack of unopened mail to the side of the coffee table and placed her briefcase on it, snapping it open with an abrupt efficiency. “This isn’t a social call, Dorian.” She straightened, and her gaze drilled into the stallion, trying to uncover his innermost thoughts. “We have to talk.”

Taking several steps toward Brietta, Dorian chuckled. “Don’t tell me that Granger...” His words and his laughter trailed off as the mare’s countenance retained its closed, cold look. What had happened in his absence to put up this wall between them, the stallion wondered, feeling a churning sensation in the pit of his stomach.

“Granger’s not the problem.” She reached into the attache case and withdrew a manila folder, tossing in down in front of Dorian. “This is.”

Dorian did not have to look down to read the label on the file; he knew there was only one packet of information that would have turned his warm and loving sweetheart into this cold and distant professional. He did, however, reach down to pick the file up for he could not bear that icy stare any longer. He flipped through the papers while his mind wildly searched for the words to alleviate the horror that must have engulfed Brietta when she had first realized the scope of the proposal it documented. He came up empty.

“Why, Dorian?”

The words were spoken so softly that Dorian would not have been sure that they had been spoken at all if he had not seen the accompanying pain in Brietta’s eyes. “Please don’t think the worst of me, Brie.”

“I am trying hard not to.” She unconsciously slipped her hoof over the engagement ring causing Dorian’s heart to instantly tighten. He held his breath as he waited for her to slip the sparkling gold band off her foreleg, but her hoof only settled there as if gleaning strength from the symbol. “That’s why I came... to hear your explanation.”

Releasing his breath and running a hoof through his mane to steady himself, Dorian allowed himself to flash a lop-sided grin at Brietta; but it did nothing to soften the stiff demeanor of the mare. With a resigned wave of his hoof, Dorian indicated the couch. “We may as well sit down, Brie; this may take awhile.” He waited for her to be seated, but she chose a chair a good distance away from the couch; so Dorian sat alone.

“Was this your reason for coming to Whitehall?” Brietta asked in an emotionless voice, her gaze now fixed on the file folder that was still clutched in Dorian’s hoof.

Tossing the folder down on the table between them as if it suddenly burned him, Dorian looked intently at Brietta. “No! Is that what you think... that I came here solely to seduce you so that I could get my hooves on Whitehall Place?”

“What else am I to think?”

“You could give me the benefit of the doubt and realize that there must be extenuating circumstances that you are yet unaware of.”

“I’ve already told you that the reason I’m here is to find out what’s behind all this... betrayal.”

“I have not betrayed you, Brie, nor any of your family. When I approached Sloan about working here, it was because of an honest desire to work with one of the most respected firms in Ponyland; and working with a friend who had seen me through some tough years at law school was an added advantage. The chance to come to Whitehall and be part of such a reputable business was a dream come true– as you can well imagine– for a stallion who had started out as a loner and a hooligan.”

“Then why this file to turn my family home into some business venture?”

“Before I even left Denton to come to Whitehall, one of my acquaintances from the good-old-days– I’d met him when I was a colt during my brief sojourn in Capital City– came to call and ask a favor of me. He reminded my none too subtly of an occasion when he had saved my young hide, and that he expected me to come through for him in a project he was working on. He had obviously kept an eye on me over the years for he knew about my schooling at Pembroke; now he needed a lawyer to do his bidding... and in Whitehall, of all places.” The stallion ran a shaking hoof through his violet mane.

“To take Whitehall Place away from us?”

“No. Not at that time. Back then, he was only interested in doing some speculating on Whitehall property in general; he wanted to get in on the ground floor of the expansion and make some quick jangles. All he wanted from me was my assurance that I would back him up with any legalities that might get in his way. At that point in time, I could see no real problem with acting as his lawyer; so I said I’d do what I could; that seemed to satisfy him.”

“How could you tolerate such a situation? This guy sounds like nothing less than a criminal.”

“I can’t deny that, but I don’t think you understand the circumstances. I learned to make my own way early in life, Brie, and that threw me into some shady dealings with disreputable ponies.”

“That’s no excuse for your behavior now!”

“Isn’t it? You never blinked an eye when I told you my early life was unsavory. You could blot it out, forget it, put it behind you. But I couldn’t. There were loyalties that went too far back.”

“Honor among thieves? That’s no excuse either.”

“It’s not an excuse; it’s a reason!”

Dorian’s voice had risen so that his words hung in the air between them, and Brietta realized that they had gotten off track. She took a deep breath to calm her frazzled nerves before this exchange became a shouting match. “This pony... were his dealings on the up and up?”

“At first, Hazard’s business was nothing out of the ordinary... buying and selling property, simple things. But then he wanted me to close my eyes to certain irregularities in some of the deals he was making; he wasn’t too pleased when I refused to do his bidding.”

“You didn’t cooperate with him then?” Brietta asked with a bit of hope echoing through her words.

“How could I? I was dating you by then, Brie, and he knew it. That’s what gave him the idea for this... this abomination!” An angry hoof sent the folder flying off the table onto the floor, spilling papers in disarray. “He wanted me to find a way to get Whitehall Place.”

“You helped him?”

“Of course not! I told him that I wouldn’t lift a hoof to advance his project.”

“And what did this... Hazard... say to that?”

Dorian laughed a harsh, humorless laugh. “He said nothing, and he left me alone. I should have expected the worst, but I was too caught up in loving you, Brie. My street-wise instincts were obliterated by the happiness I shared with you and your family.” He sent a look across the space between them that went a long way in soothing Brietta’s outraged sensibilities; she returned a gentle smile, then suddenly remembered what had prompted this conversation in the first place.

“Where did this data come from?” Brietta asked, indicating the papers on the floor.

Leaning back in the sofa, Dorian dropped his head against the cushion, draped a foreleg across his forehead, and closed his eyes. “Early yesterday morning, Colly came to my office saying there was a stallion in the waiting room who wished to see me about an urgent and highly personal matter; he hadn’t given her his name, but his description could only be one pony. I told Colly to show him in.”

The stallion was silent, reliving some private hell. Brietta could no longer stand the distance between them; she stood and moved to take her place beside him, her heart going out to him as he suffered the painful situation his past had pulled him into, a situation that could have serious consequences for her and her family as well. Her hoof tentatively touched the side of his face to offer what comfort she could; his eyes flashed open, and he stared at her as if she was an unexpected phantom. Then, just as quickly, he captured her hoof in his and drew it to his lips, pressing a gentle kiss upon it. “I love you so much, Brie,” he said softly.

“I should hope so,” Brietta said lightly, withdrawing her hoof from his possession; there were still some facts that she needed to know. “Your client was Hazard, I presume.”

“Yes, smug as he could be. After I’d declined to help him, he had gone ahead and hired some disreputable bloke to ferret out the information he needed to get his hooves on Whitehall Place. He set that file down,” he looked with disgust at the folder on the floor, “and said that everything was there for him to not only get the property but to become as wealthy as he’d always dreamed. He said all he needed now was a reputable lawyer to handle some things for him.”

“What did you tell him?”

“To find someone else.”

“And his reaction?”

“He reminded me of one of my early escapades that the police never found out about; he said he’d take it to the local paper if I didn’t help him– and ruin not only my career but also the reputation of your father’s law firm by association.” Dorian looked at Brietta’s stricken face and flinched. “I told him I’d think about it.”

“So that was the purpose for your trip to Capital City?”

“Yes. After he’d left and I’d had a chance to look through the stuff he’d accumulated concerning Whitehall Place, I did some thinking and realized that I had just as much information to blackmail him with as he had on me. There were some things he had done back in our shared days in Capital City that wouldn’t look too good in the light of day for his record either. So I made the trip today to tell him to forget about Whitehall Place, that there was nothing he could do that would force me to help him or even to close my eyes to what he was trying to do if he chose to bring in someone else to do his dirty work. He wasn’t too happy about it, but he finally saw things my way.”

“So what happens now?”

Dorian grinned with a touch of his usual good humor. “I’m afraid our casual breakfast date for tomorrow morning will become a legal council, my darling. Aiden and Conrad need to be made aware of the contents of that folder so that they– we– will be prepared to thwart any attempts by Hazard to make his plan come true.” He reached out to draw Brietta into his embrace and buried his face in her mane. “I’m so sorry that my past sins have come back to haunt me now when our wedding plans should be foremost in both our minds.”

Nestling against the strength and safety that Dorian represented for Brietta, the mare smiled. “After the way I felt earlier when I thought that you had somehow become the enemy, I think I could confront anything now– as long as we face it together.”

Pulling back so that he could see her countenance, Dorian returned her smile. Her positive attitude went a long way to shore-up his sagging confidence to come out of this mess with nothing less than superficial wounds. Hazard or no Hazard, his and Brietta’s future together was assured. Giving her a light kiss, he asked, “Do you think Anna might have some leftovers in the fridge? I’m starved!”

“If this is your way of volunteering to walk me home, I accept. When I was waiting for you to get back, I was fearful that I might have to get Sloan to take me home– I was so afraid of what you might tell me, Dorian.”

Dorian’s smile faded. “Sloan knows about this?”

“Yes. He walked in on me just after I found the file, and he knew something serious had upset me.”

“And just why did you make free use of my office anyway?”

“Because Grandfather was very displeased with you and asked– no, ordered– me to look for a file on Walter Patridge. Colly hadn’t been able to find it, so Grandfather set me to the task; and I found nothing but a manila folder with W.P. on it, which I took to represent Walter Patridge.” Brietta grimaced. “Meanwhile, Colly came across the wanted file later on her own desk.”

“So I have her to thank for your stumbling onto something I wish you would never have had to see; you must have been ready to throw me out.”

Brietta grinned. “Sloan was. But I knew you must have had a reason, and you did. My faith in you remains unshaken.”

“Then tell me your mother will let me sleep in the guest room once I get you home.”

“Oh, sweetie, you’re tired; and I’m standing here chattering like a magpie. Let’s get...”

A knock on the door stopped Brietta; she looked curiously at Dorian whose gaze was on the door as if he was leery of the pony on the other side. Then, picking up the folder and papers that were still reposing on the floor, he thrust it all into a drawer and then went to see who was waiting.

The sight of the visitor seemed to alleviate some worry that the stallion had. “Sloan! What has you out prowling at this time of night?”

“It’s not that late,” Sloan said, stepping into the room. “Brietta,” he acknowledged. “I was concerned about you.”

“Dorian has explained the situation, Sloan. This affair was none of his doing...”

Interrupting, Dorian clarified the facts. “It was my tainted past that brought about this mess, Sloan. I never would have gotten involved if I had a choice in the matter.”

“Come,” Brietta said, setting a hoof on Dorian’s foreleg. “You two make yourselves comfortable while I fix some coffee and a snack.” She smiled at Dorian and Sloan in turn, then left the two to discuss matters stallion to stallion.

* * *
By the time Sloan was satisfied with Dorian’s story, the hour had grown very late indeed, and Brietta made a suggestion she would come to regret. “Sloan could walk me home; and you, Dorian, could get some rest.”

Dorian looked at Sloan, then back at Brietta. “If that’s okay with both of you, I accept the offer. This day has been trying, to say the least.”

“I’ll be happy to see you home, Brietta,” Sloan agreed, remembering any number of times he had been her escort of choice.

“But you’ll come for breakfast, both of you?” Brietta asked. “You’ll have to be involved with our battle plans for Whitehall Place.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Dorian said, pulling Brietta to him and delivering a searing kiss. Conscious of Sloan’s disapproving scrutiny, Brietta blushed as Dorian looked askance at her and winked. “Your heart wasn’t in it, my love. We’ll just have to try that again.”

His lips found hers once more, and Brietta allowed herself to be swept away with it momentarily; but her sense of propriety prevailed, and she eased herself away from the stallion. “Goodnight, Dorian, “she smiled. “I love you,” she whispered for his ears only, then slipped out the door with Sloan.

If she had only had a premonition of the events fast closing in on them, she would have lingered over that kiss indefinitely.



Chapter 18 of 28
Hazard


Sleep was the last thing on Dorian’s mind when he was finally alone in his apartment. There were too many loose ends floating through his tangled thoughts as he tried to resolve Brietta’s knowledge of Hazard’s scheme with this morning’s confrontation with that stallion. It was one thing for Dorian to thwart Hazard’s plans with some blackmail of his own, but quite another to hold things together with Brietta, Sloan, Conrad, and Aiden all possessing knowledge concerning Hazard’s less than ethical plans for the future of Whitehall Place. Any action the law firm took to stabilize the family’s property would be a clear indication to Hazard that Dorian had not kept his end of the bargain.

A distinctive click from the front door garnered all of Dorian’s attention. He knew it was the sound of the lock being released, and he anticipated who he would see when the door swung open. The red stallion with black mane and a garish scar stood in the aperture like an avenging angel– or, more correctly, devil– with a menacing look on his face that did not bode well for the occupant, yet Dorian met that gaze with one equally persistent stare.

“I’ve had some further concerns, Dorian, since our conversation this morning,” the evil stallion intoned with false camaraderie. “I feel we should talk more.” His intent was backed up by the entrance into the room of two shifty stallions with steel rods who silently took their positions to either side of Dorian.

“What, Hazard? You doubt my integrity?” asked Dorian openly while inwardly hoping that, whatever happened, Brietta’s name would stay out of this.

That hope was soon dashed.

“Your pretty lawyer friend stopped by, I noticed,” Hazard said smoothly, indicating that he had been watching Dorian’s apartment. “How much did you tell her?”

“You think I’d let her in on your plans, Hazard? I told you this morning that I won’t tell anyone about your foolish layout as long as you set your sites on some property other than Whitehall Place.”

Prowling the room, Hazard chuckled. “You’re losing your touch, Dorian. I noticed as I followed you from Capital City that you looked over your shoulder now and then.”

“I knew someone was there,” admitted Dorian.

“But you never saw me– I never let you see me. You’ve been away from the streets too long. You’ve forgotten to watch your back.”

Dorian stiffened. He had underestimated Hazard and the oaf’s overwhelming desire to make something of himself, regardless of who he hurt in the process. In his own involvement with the shadier aspects of life, Dorian had never considered anything so unethical that it would cause physical pain or suffering. With blinding clarity, he now realized that Hazard was not adverse to using any means at his disposal to get what he wanted.

That insight did nothing to alleviate Dorian’s concern for Brietta’s welfare. Regardless of what Hazard intended for him– and the two goons with those metal rods were not conducive to pleasant expectations– Dorian could only pray that Hazard would not extend his revenge to the mare. Whatever happened, Dorian had to deflect Hazard’s attention away from Brietta. The knowledge that his involvement with Hazard all those years ago could now endanger the mare he loved caused Dorian a more excruciating anxiety than the two thugs could ever produce. But what exactly was Hazard’s devious strategy?

Finding Dorian’s silence provoking, Hazard nodded to the stallion to the right of Dorian; that stallion responded with a sudden and powerful lunge with his weapon that caught Dorian unaware across his mid-section; Dorian was knocked against a table from the force of the impact, but righted himself, his eyes blazing. “What do you mean by this? I haven’t told anyone what your intentions are for Whitehall Place per our deal this morning.”

“You’re working under a misconception; you talked about a deal... I never agreed to it.”

“We’re at a standoff, Hazard; we both know something about the other that we want kept quiet. I’ll uphold my end of the bargain.” Anything for Brietta, Dorian mused. She can never be drawn into this infernal web, not with this mad stallion on the prowl.

Running a hoof over the spines of the books on a library shelf, Hazard chuckled. “I can’t believe you didn’t unburden your secrets to your fiancee... it is her mansion, after all.” He glared at Dorian. “I think you’re lying; I think you intend to stab me in the back.”

I’m not a dolt, Hazard.” Dorian said the words with the implication that Hazard was. That brought him another blow from one of the stallions. Shaking his head after the shock of the hit, Dorian managed to say, “Brie would drop me like a hot potato if she even suspected that I was aware of such a proposal as you have in mind.”

“I don’t know, Dorian...”

“Look in the drawer over there, top right. You’ll find all the papers you gave me. I didn’t share them with anyone, and you’re more than welcome to have them back. I wanted no part in this from the beginning as you should well remember.”

Pulling open the indicated drawer, Hazard withdrew the file and briefly perused the pages of information it contained. Seemingly satisfied, he closed the file and looked at Dorian. “I’m glad to have this back.”

Dorian began to breath easier, thinking that Hazard would take what he had come for and get on his way. But Hazard nodded once more toward the weaponed stallions; and rather than take their leave, the two pounded Dorian simultaneously on the back, sending the stallion to the floor.

“Hold it!” Hazard thundered. “I don’t want him hurt.” He smiled across the room at the traumatized stallion. “I want him to walk to his fate.” He stepped across the floor to stand by Dorian’s side, and prodded him with a hoof. “Get up, fool. You’ll soon learn why I’ve grown stronger over the years, and you’ve become soft.”

Breathing heavily, blood oozing from the welting sores on his back, Dorian painfully lifted himself to his hooves. Whatever happens, Brie has to be left out of this, he agonized within his tortured thoughts. I never would have gone near her if I had ever expected this reprobate to come into her life. Oh, God, whatever it takes, please, please, keep Brie safe!

* * *
Dorian found it hard to concentrate as he was forced to follow Hazard, the two wastrels ungently prodding him to keep to the path that he could barely discern through his sweat-washed eyes. The evening was cool, and the breeze was the only comfort his heated body had; the moon was bleak, making his faltering steps even more vulnerable to the stones that often tripped him. He was aware enough of his surroundings to know the direction they were headed; their path was leading them to the west. What was west of Whitehall? Dorian wondered, his mind still reeling from the hits he had taken. Where was Hazard taking him?

Part of his mind hoped they would never arrive at the destination point; as long as he was walking, his captors would want him to live. But once they arrived at the spot they were headed for, then what? Dorian could not think about it. Instead, he tried to marshal his thoughts to dwell on happier times with Brietta; oh, how he loved her! But to protect her, he would willingly give her up; her life, her safety, was worth more to him than the joy her companionship gave him. He would suffer– he was suffering– but she must never know the horror of being in the control of this miscreant. He would give his life to see her safe.

It was Hazard’s coarse laughter that alerted Dorian to their arrival at... where were they? Suddenly, a lantern beamed into life; the area looked familiar somehow; yet, Dorian could not quite place where it was. His back and sides were throbbing unmercifully; and now that he no longer had to put one leg ahead of the other, he found it nearly impossible to keep on his hooves.

He tried to focus on the light of the lantern as it swept the surroundings; and as he did, it struck him as to where they were... it was the ledge, the high point west of the city from which the rough and ragged land dropped vertically to the plain below. Inconsequently, Dorian thought of the town of Porter that lay further west on the flat prairie and forced himself to look out into the gloomy darkness to see the pinpoints of light that marked the city’s location.

“Well, Dorian,” Hazard’s voice cut through the night, “this is the point where I bid you farewell. My only regret is that you could have been a boon to me if you had only thrown your loyalty to my interests. But you didn’t, so it comes to this.” Hazard swung the lantern’s beam to rest directly on Dorian, causing the stallion to avert his eyes. “You’re to have an accident, Dorian... a terrible accident, I’m afraid. This ledge can be a dangerous place on a dark night, especially if a pony isn’t too familiar with its idiosyncracies. By morning, all that Miss Manning will find is your cold body.”

At those words, Dorian lifted his head, his mind raging. Not Brie! No! She cannot be pulled into this!

He barely saw the flash of steel off the lantern’s light as a rod came crashing down and his mind splintered into fiery bursts of shooting stars followed by unconscious blackness. It was all for the best; he never felt the jabs of the many rocks and outcroppings that tore at his body as it jostled its way down the perilous wall of the ledge to land in sprawling, disjoined array at the bleak, torturous base.

* * *
Dawn was just beginning to send pink fingers over the eastern horizon when the private phone at Brietta’s bedside jangled brazenly in her ear. A lazy lavender foreleg reached for it and a sleepy voice croaked a shaky good morning.

“Brietta, I’ve got to talk to you!” a familiar and excited voice said. “Meet me at the ledge in twenty minutes!”

Her eyes popping open at the urgency in the voice, Brietta sat up. “What about breakfast?”

“The ledge... twenty minutes.” The phone line went dead.

Brietta allowed herself several more moments cradled in her soft bedding; she closed her eyes and gave a contented sigh as her body nestled itself into the contours of the mattress. But, no, she said to herself. Dorian, for some odd reason, expected her to be at the ledge. She forced herself to sit up and swing her legs over the edge and sit, shaking the last of the cobwebs from her sleep-logged mind. She had been dreaming of Dorian, and those dreams had been pleasant. She smiled foolishly.

Dorian had sounded strange, Brietta noted as she though back to the hurried call she had just received. She wished she had been more awake so that she could have asked some intelligent questions. What had prompted him to change his plans for this morning? Something must have jogged his memory with some critical information that he wanted to discuss with her before he faced Aiden and Conrad.

Suddenly, Brietta’s head began to throb. What would be her family’s reaction when they heard of Dorian’s involvement, no matter how unintentional, in this wild scheme to usurp Whitehall Place?

As Brietta splashed the cold water on her face, her senses finally shed their lethargy; with her teeth brushed and her hair combed, she was soon ready to depart. Stepping quietly down the stairs to avoid waking her parents, Brietta went to the rear of the house to leave by the back door. She found Clarence sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of steaming coffee and Anna busy at the stove.

“Do you two never sleep?” Brietta asked, knowing they had been up and about yet when Sloan had seen her inside in that primordial hour after midnight.

“And what about you, missy? What’s got you up and about so early after that late night? It’s hardly daylight!” Anna fussed.

Brietta rolled her eyes. “Dorian called and wants me to meet him at the ledge. I doubt he got much sleep last night; his brain must be addled.”

“At least have some coffee first.”

“No. Can’t. He said twenty minutes. We’ll both be back for breakfast, though... count on that.” With a flippant wave that revealed none of her inner anxiety, Brietta was gone.

Anna continued her mutterings. “I know the ledge is a good place to watch the sunset, but sunrise?”

Clarence chuckled. “The buck’s in love, Anna. He don’t need no reason.”

“He’s not the only one, either,” Anna growled. “I’d swear Sloan’s still as much in love with the gal as ever, if that glow in his eyes last night when he brought her in meant anything.”

* * *
At about the same time Brietta left Whitehall Place for the ledge, a red bodied, black-maned stallion with a manila file in his hoof skulked out of Dorian’s apartment and took a cautious look around before slipping out onto the path and melting into the still grey morning in the direction of Capital City.

* * *
From a distance, the ledge was deserted. Brietta felt a twinge of resentment that Dorian had gotten her up from a numbing slumber to arrange this rendezvous on a morning already fraught with serious business, but he himself had not made an effort to arrive in the allotted time. But the morning was beautiful, and Brietta allowed herself to set aside her problems and worries and to be indulged with the caresses of the birthing sunbeams and the pleasantly mild breezes that stroked her cheeks and ran through her mane.

Overhead, the blue sky was a never-ending expanse of beauty, broken only by a soaring vulture that watched the terrain for a carcass to consume. Brietta shivered. The magnificence of the black-feathered bird was awesome, but she could not pleasurably consider the variety of food with which the creature engorged himself.

The top of the ledge was enlightened with the easterly sunshine, and the plain to the far west was alight as well; Brietta made out the buildings of Porter where they sprang up out of the landscape like foal’s building blocks lined up in neat rows interspersed with riotous foliage of numerous trees. The freedom that the view exemplified was exhilarating, and Brietta found herself enjoying her solitary morning.

Taking a look back toward the town of Whitehall, Brietta observed that the path from that direction was still empty. Where was the stallion that had been so determined to meet her here in twenty minutes? She would have to remember on his birthday to get him a new watch.

Her attention tiring of the distant views, Brietta began to focus on the rugged terrain at her hooves. Large boulders marked the edge of the cliff that fell away so abruptly; looking down, Brietta noted that the angle of the sun could not yet penetrate the drop-off, leaving it in dismal shadows. The large rocks and jagged outcroppings were dark smudges, the gloom disguising their rough and dangerous edges. As Brietta peered over the ledge into the darker regions, she felt a moving shadow pass over her; looking up, she shuddered.

The vulture who had been circling slowly through the sky like a soaring kite had been joined by two– no, three– of its compatriots; and all of the birds had dropped much lower in the sky so that one of them was actually at Brietta’s height as it swept the empty space beyond the ledge.

“Dorian, you’d better get her quickly!” she griped out loud, finding some solace in the sound of her voice. “What are you after?” she called to the ebony birds that swept closer and closer. They seemed to be honing in on a spot near the base of the cliff.

Searching the rocks below her more closely from her lofty position, Brietta tried to locate the source of the vultures’ hunt. Other than rocks and tufts of hardy grasses, there wasn’t much to see on the side of the ledge; at the base, there was a cluttered accumulation of rocks that had over the years abandoned their hold on the cliff side and plunged down to rest at the base. Making out clumps of weeds that had braved the forlorn setting, Brietta could see nothing of interest except... were those flowers?... the dreaded burdocks that produced the clinging cockleburs?... that violet patch of color spilling over the boulder just below her?...the same color as...

The rising sun spilled over the ledge.

“Oh, my God!” Brietta screamed, realizing that the violet display that she was viewing was connected to the light grey body of Dorian which until this moment she had mistaken for a rock. Horrified, she could only gasp for breath after the heart-rending scream she had emitted.

“Oh, my God! He’s fallen! And he’s not moving!”

Standing with her hooves pressed against her mouth, Brietta forced herself to take several deep breaths to calm her stampeding nerves so that she could make some sane decisions. She wanted to get down to the spot where Dorian lay, but the cliff here was nearly vertical; she would have to retrace her steps and come in at a different angle where the ledge was less pronounced. And that would take time, time that Dorian might not have.
She needed help. Even if she could reach Dorian, there was nothing she could do for him. Someone had to call the paramedics; and as there was no one else for the job, she would have to run back to Whitehall Place to do that before she could attend to Dorian. With one final glance at the unmoving body of her fiancé lying haphazardly at the base of the cliff, she took off at a run in the direction of home.

Bursting through a small grove of trees along the path, Brietta nearly collided with a colt coming out of the bushes; putting out her hooves in a beseeching gesture, she half gasped, half sobbed, “Someone’s been hurt... fallen over the ledge... unconscious at the foot of the cliff... call paramedics.”

The colt, whom Brietta now recognized as the son of one of the neighboring families, stared at Brietta wide-eyed. “Gone over the cliff, you say?”

Brietta shook the thick-headed creature. “Go to Whitehall Place and tell them to call the paramedics to the ledge; Dorian’s been hurt,” she said as clearly as she could manage. “And hurry! Please!”

As she watched the youngster finally realize the seriousness of the situation and turn to scamper toward Brietta’s home, she called after him. “I’m going to go back to him! Tell my father to meet me at the base of the ledge!” She then returned to the side of the hill where the incline was more gradual and began to work her way down the embankment and from there to follow the course of the land back to the foot of the cliff.

Tearing her skin when pushing through brambles and picking up seed pods that clung to her mane and tail, Brietta was unaware of anything except Dorian lying alone and wounded in the nest of rocks; she gasped in outrage as a vulture passed low over her head, realizing now what the birds were interested in obtaining. “Get away from here!” she screamed, flailing her forelegs in the air like a windmill gone mad. She stumbled over a rock and fell to the ground, only to pick herself up and, ignoring the scrape she had received, continue her trek.

When she finally clambered over the last rock in her path, Brietta sank to the ground at Dorian’s side and groaned at the dreadful sight that met her eyes; the stallion’s body was bruised at all angles with long, angry welts crisscrossing his side and a jagged tear down the side of his neck. One foreleg was bent at an impossible angle. A point of impact on his head was open and still trickling blood. Brietta felt herself turn cold as she noted the lifelessness of this battered and beloved friend.

Whispering an unending volley of prayers, Brietta felt for the stallion’s pulse; finding none, she let out a cry of anguish and dropped her head onto Dorian’s chest, hugging him as if she could relay her own life into him. It was only when her wracking sobs had begun to lessen that a low, thudding sensation began to pierce her brain; with a start, she realized that her senses were picking up the coursing sound of a heartbeat, weak but steady. “Dorian!” she implored. “Dorian, it’s Brie. I’m here for you, my darling.” The lack of response from the stallion nearly destroyed her.

As she ran a hoof through his tangled mane, she came up against the rough, scratchy feel of a clump of cockleburs, and she found herself feeling such a surge of anger over the senselessness of this tragic situation that she tore the unrelenting seedpods from their hold of the stallion, directing all of her anger against the one thing she could defeat. As she held the stiff, unyielding cluster in her hoof, she remembered the garden party and Dorian’s tormenting her about the cockleburs stuck in her tail; and she shuddered at her plans to pay him back with some cockleburs of his own.

“No!” She broke into tears, thrusting the offensive seeds away with a violence that would have surprised the stallion if he could have understood what was going on around him. “Please, Dorian, look at me!” She stroked the violet flow of his mane and caressed his cheek, willing him to hear her and to respond.

The helplessness of her predicament was overwhelming; Brietta could do nothing but speak Dorian’s name and whisper words of encouragement to the fallen stallion while she waited for professional help to come. She had not even put a ribbon in her hair in her hurry to leave the house and meet him; she could have used it to clean the bright red rivulets from his face and his sides and the awful wound on his neck.

Using what was available, she tore off some of the leaves from the hateful burdock plants that prospered here amidst the rocky landscape, using their dewy wetness to bathe away the worst of the blood. Her touch on his face was soft and gentle as she accompanied her provision with gentle murmurings of all the things that she wanted him to know and remember– all of her feelings, all of the plans they shared, all of the promise for a rainbow future.

She was silently resenting the slowness of the arrival of help when she heard her name called and realized that her father was somewhere near; but the pony that knelt at her side was not Aiden but Sloan.

“Oh, Sloan,” she wailed, “he’s been hurt so badly!”

“I can see that,” Sloan said, shaken to find his friend in such sorry shape. “What happened anyway?”

“I found him here; he must have fallen.”

“Clarence said you were to meet him; why the change of plans? What brought you two here?”

“I don’t now,” Brietta wailed. “He called early and said to meet him in twenty minutes. I jumped out of bed and came straight here... to this.” She covered her face with her hooves and slowly began rocking back and forth.

“The paramedics will be here soon, Brietta; they’ll be able to help him.” Sloan wished he believed what he said. “What you’ve got to do is calm down so that you can give them any information they need once they arrive.”

Sloan wiped uselessly at the tears that silently streamed down her face, but she shrugged him away so that she could return to her administrations of what soothing care she could give. “How did you get here so fast?” puzzled Brietta.

“I’d just arrived at Whitehall Place for our breakfast meeting when Aiden came out the door; Lena and Conrad are going to meet us at the hospital.”

“Oh! Where are the paramedics?” Brietta complained, finding it nearly impossible to wait. When her father clambered over the rocks, she jumped to her hooves.

“Daddy,” she pleaded, reverting to the term of endearment that she had forsaken years ago, “please do something for him!”

His heart feeling as if it was being ripped from him, Aiden could only pull Brietta into his forelegs and offer what little comfort he was able; but under his gentle ministrations, her tears gradually stopped and her agitated mind slowly settled into its more precise bearing.

“Father,” she said, brushing the last of the tears away, “how could this have happened?” She once more turned her attention to Dorian. “Dorian, Dorian,” she whispered, taking the unharmed hoof into hers and holding it close. “Can you hear me?”

Not expecting a reply, Brietta was heartened to see the stallion’s eyelids flutter slightly, then relax again as if the effort was too much. It strengthened her, however, to see that small response in the one she loved so dearly. She looked up into Sloan’s eyes and smiled tremulously.

“He’s going to be all right.” One last tear slid down her cheek. “He has to be.”

Sloan looked at the injuries Dorian had sustained, then turned his attention up the side of the cliff to the top of the ledge from which Dorian had obviously tumbled. Anyone coming down that rough and rocky terrain would have been treated to a veritable gauntlet of unyielding protrusions of rock. It was obvious that Dorian had sustained a multitude of external cuts and abrasions; but what of internal damage?

Another question churned through Sloan’s thoughts. If Dorian’s fall had occurred such a short time ago– for it should have taken him no longer to reach the ledge from Whitehall than it did for Brietta to arrive from her home, especially as he was up and all ready to go, one would presume– then why were many of the abrasions already crusted with dried blood? Only the gash on his head appeared to be exuding anything now.

“The paramedics,” Sloan said, a feeling of gratitude for their arrival washing over him. “Come, Brietta; we’ve got to give them room.” He and Aiden drew the mare off to the side where she watched with wide-eyed dread while the medical ponies examined the stallion and began their ministrations.

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