"You go sit with Grandpa while your mom and I clean-up the kitchen," instructed Strawberry Shortcake of her three grandfoals: Baby Wineberry, Baby Huckleberry, and Baby Gooseberry. The three foals promptly obeyed, knowing Grandpa was always good for a story. Huckleberry led the way with Wineberry following; little Baby Gooseberry tried her best to keep up, but her new walking skills landed her in a tangled heap in the doorway. Not growing discouraged, she righted herself and was soon on the way again.
"Come on up, precious," Grandpa greeted the littlest foal, drawing her up to his lap and wrapping a foreleg around her. He grinned at Huckleberry and Wineberry. "Now. What do you want to hear: the story of The Three Little Bushwoolies or Rumpelstiltskin?"
"Puss in Boots!" exclaimed Huckleberry, slashing his pretend sword in the air.
But Wineberry disagreed. "Tell a story about Mama when she was little," the seven-year-old requested.
Strawberry Baskets leaned back and gave it his most serious thought. "How about we combine the two... the master of Puss in Boots will be your father, and the princess will be your mother."
"Ooh!" cooed Wineberry. "Mama would make a lovely princess." She clapped her hooves in delight. Baby Gooseberry mimicked her older sister, and succeeded in rapping Grandpa quite soundly in the nose.
"Okay then. Settle in, and we'll begin." Strawberry Baskets got comfortable in his chair, and Baby Gooseberry snuggled against his shoulder. The other two foals sat on the braided rug at Grandpa's hooves. "All set?"
Three little heads nodded their assent, and Strawberry Baskets began his tale. "Once upon a time there was a handsome purple prince with green hair who had left his home in search of a kingdom of his own."
"Why didn't the king let the prince rule with him?" asked Huckleberry.
"Because he had brothers that were ruling the kingdom for their father already, and they didn't have room for him," Strawberry Baskets determined.
"So the prince, whose name was Grapevine, started down the road to find a place for himself. He had nothing with him except a large furry black and white male cat that had always been his closest and dearest confidant, and a pouch containing all the jangles he had in the world.
"Grapevine and his cat had traveled far when they reached an unknown city that appeared to be prosperous; the prince decided to find shelter for the night. But he was stopped in his tracks as a voice behind him asked, 'Master?'
"Turning swiftly, Grapevine saw no one but his cat. 'Who said that?' he asked.
" 'I did,' responded his feline friend.
" 'You... you can talk?'
" 'Obviously,' replied the cat. 'And before we retire for the night, I'd like you to do one thing for me.'
" 'What... what is that?' asked the prince, too dumbfounded to think clearly.
" 'Purchase for me a pair of leather boots,' the cat requested. 'Preferably black,' he added as an afterthought.
"The prince, realizing that a talking cat must know what he was doing, went into the town to locate a bootmaker. Having found one, he stated his request: a pair of black leather boots, of finest quality, for a... cat. The bootmaker, thinking the request odd but noting the bag of jangles that the young stallion carried, went about the business of cutting and stitching a pair of the smallest boots he had ever made. He lined them in red napped fabric, and they were very elegant indeed.
"When Grapevine returned to his cat, the creature was very pleased with his boots. 'You did well,' he complimented his master. With the boots on his back feet, the cat was now able to stand on his hind feet and walk upright; he strutted like a prince himself.
"Finding a room for the night, Grapevine was soon fast asleep. The cat, however, stayed awake to make plans. And when morning light broke over the land, he quietly left his master behind.
"Taking a bag with him, the cat went out into the meadows surrounding the city and using his keen sense of smell, located many tasty greens fresh in the morning dew and placed a pleasing assortment in the bag he carried. When the bag was full, he set his sights on the castle of the king of this area; the impressive building sat on a hill at the edge of the city. Puss was soon at the entrance to the castle, his bag of greens in paw.
"The castle guards were astounded to see a cat walking on his hind legs wearing boots and with the ability of speech, so they let him pass with no questions asked. The Captain of the Guard took charge of the precocious cat, and led him to the throne room where the king and queen were receiving their subjects.
"When it was Puss' turn to go before the royal couple, he bowed his most perfect bow and presented the bag of greens to the queen. 'A fresh salad newly picked for her majesty,' Puss purred, his yellow eyes meeting the queen's. Puss had heard of the queen's fickle nature in regard to the salads served at the royal table, and therefore had determined to approach her from that angle.
"The queen politely contained her surprise to be approached by a talking cat, and accepted his gift graciously; but the king could not contain his astonishment. 'A talking cat!' he exclaimed. 'I've never seen the like of it!'
"But after the original shock had worn off, the king complimented Puss on his considerate gift for the queen; and to offer his thanks, he presented Puss with a miniature sword and sheath just the right size for a feline to carry at his side, just like the king's own knights.
"But Puss had not lost sight of his master's interests, and informed the royal couple that it was his master, the Prince of Arbor, who had provided the tempting taste treat for the queen.
" 'What a fine young prince he must be,' exclaimed the queen, and the king agreed.
"When Puss was clear of the castle, he hurried back to his master and found Grapevine pacing the floor in worry of his precocious feline. 'Puss, where have you been?'
"'I have been to the palace to visit the king and queen of this kingdom where we stay,' Puss explained, and he went on to fill in the details of his morning's work.
" 'And now,' Puss proceeded, 'to continue my plan, you must go to the river outside the city and take a swim near the bridge that is on the road which leads to the castle.'
"Having full confidence in his talking cat by this time, Grapevine was only too willing to do as he was told. 'But where will you be off to?' he inquired of his furry friend.
" 'I have my own affairs to attend to,' Puss answered mysteriously.
"Grapevine did as Puss had requested of him and went to the clear, sparkling river to enjoy a swim under the warm summer sun. Before going into the water, the prince laid his pouch of jangles amidst the rocks at the river's edge.
"Unknown to Grapevine, Puss had followed his master; and as the prince swam to the farthest shore of the river, Puss took the bag of coins and scampered off to hide them before taking his position behind the bridge abutments beside the road.
"Hearing the sounds of a carriage approaching from the direction of the castle, Puss jumped out into the road to intercept the vehicle. 'Help! Help!' he screamed. 'My master has been robbed!'
"The king, upon hearing the ruckus and recognizing the boot-clad cat, had has carriage pull to a stop. 'What is the matter, my dear Puss?' he asked.
" 'My master has been robbed while swimming in the river,' explained a properly upset Puss. 'My poor, poor prince.'
"Looking to the queen who sat at his side and across to his daughter, the princess, who was also in the carriage, the king waited to gather their opinions. 'If the young stallion has been robbed in our fair kingdom, it is only fitting that we should extend him our hospitality,' the queen decided. 'Please come to dine with us this evening, and tell your master that a room will be prepared for him.'
"Puss properly bowed before the king and queen, and watched as the carriage continued on its way before scurrying down the bank to the river's edge to convey his news to the prince.
" 'What was all that caterwauling about,' the prince asked. 'And where is my money pouch?'
" 'It was stolen,' nonchalantly stated the cat. 'And we are invited to dine at the castle this evening.'
" 'We are invited to dine at the castle?' exclaimed the prince. 'That is good fortune indeed! For I have heard from some of the inhabitants of the town that the beautiful daughter of the king and queen still resides there.'
" 'The very beautiful daughter,' smugly replied Puss, a cat's smile lighting his face.
" 'You have seen her?'
" 'She was with her parents in the carriage.'
" 'And what does she look like?'
" 'You will see tonight,' was all the cat would say.
"That evening found Prince Grapevine and puss at the castle. When Grapevine saw the princess, he was immediately captivated by her charm and beauty. Her green curls framed her lovely face, and her yellow eyes mirrored the attraction that the prince felt. 'Princess Gooseberry!' he breathed. 'What a pleasure to meet you!' He took her white hoof in his and kissed it softly.
"Princess Gooseberry blushed a delicate shade of pink, and shyly lowered her eyes. 'Welcome to our home,' she murmured.
"Throughout the meal, the king and queen carried on most of the conversation with Grapevine and Gooseberry only remotely listening as their attention centered one on the other. Puss, also seated at the table, proved to be a sparkling conversationalist in lieu of his master's distracted manner.
"It was only after the dinner party had moved on to the parlor to enjoy glasses of sparkling red grape juice that Grapevine became attuned to what was being said by the king. 'Our kingdom would be perfect if not for the evil ogre that lives in the neighboring castle to the west,' the king sighed. 'He has traumatized the ponies that live under his domain for years now, and no one has ever yet been able to shake his oppressive yoke.'
" 'This ogre,' inquired Grapevine, 'is not the true ruler of the kingdom he sits over?'
" 'No,' replied the queen quietly. 'He drove my parents from their castle when I was yet a young foal.'
"Grapevine looked to Puss for guidance, knowing his ability to plan ahead to make the most of any situation. But Puss only shook his head discreetly at Grapevine. To his hosts, however, he said, 'If you will excuse the prince and I, we must be on our way early in the morning to attend to some business in the area.' The cat stood up on his booted feet, and bowed his goodnight. Grapevine reluctantly bid goodnight to the princess, and the queen called for a page to escort the two guests to their chamber.
" 'Why did you take me away from the princess so early?' hissed Grapevine. 'She is the most beautiful pony I've ever seen!'
"But Puss was already curling up on the hearthside rug. 'We must begin our quest early on the morrow,' he yawned.
" 'And what quest would that be?' asked Grapevine, still envisioning the princess and her endearing charms.
" 'To rid the yonder castle of its ogre,' replied Puss before curling his tail up over his eyes to signal the end of this exchange.
" 'So you do have a plan! And what, may I ask, is it?' But there was no answer, as Puss was already fast asleep.
"It was dark the next morning when the prince was awaken by a not-so-gentle shaking of his shoulder; burying his head under the pillow had no effect... the shaking only became more intense with the addition of bared claws. 'Come, master; it is time to make your fortune.'
"The ogre. Suddenly the events of the previous evening hit Grapevine full force, and he jumped out of bed. 'Do you mind sharing your scheme with me this morning?'
" 'We are going to the ogre's castle,' Puss stated calmly.
" 'I sort of gathered that,' griped the prince. 'What's the strategy once we get there?'
"Puss looked at his master squarely. 'You will wait outside until I have vanquished the ogre, of course.' He turned and went to the door, opening it and peering down the hall. Gesturing for Grapevine to follow him, Puss stepped quietly down the hallway on booted paws. Grapevine followed just as stealthily.
"It was easy to leave the castle undetected; Puss had obviously noted the guarded entrances and chose for their exit a seldom-used door off the servants' quarters. Puss and Grapevine were soon hurrying along the dark, deserted road in the direction of the ogre's ill-gotten kingdom.
"The morning light was streaking the eastern sky behind them when the two wayfarers first saw the castle, still far to the west, but situated on such a high hill as to be seen for miles. The first sunbeams to hit the mighty building were reflected off the rich trim of the ornate turrets as if they were coated in gold.
"Prince Grapevine stood in awe of the imposing edifice, but Puss pushed on. 'Don't get all dreamy-eyed yet,' he advised his master.
"Coming out of his reverie, the prince hurried after Puss. 'But just imagine, Puss; if we can pull this off-- whatever it is you have planned-- think what a home I could offer Princess Gooseberry!'
"Puss only scowled at his master. 'If I can pull this off, you mean.'
" 'Why, of course, Puss, that's what I meant,' the prince responded contritely, not wanting to provoke his counselor when so much was hanging in the balance. He began to daydream of bringing the princess as his bride to this magnificent castle, and found the miles melting away. Soon, Puss and Grapevine were traveling through rolling fields that fell away from the base of the high hill that rose up off the plain like some misplaced spire.
"Following the curving road that looped its way up the mountainside, Puss and Grapevine found themselves walking between vineyards of grapes ripening in the warm sunshine, fields that spread in either direction as far as the eye could see.
" 'It feels so right to be here,' mused Prince Grapevine. 'Your venture surely has to succeed, Puss.'
"The feline was walking tall and fully alert; his diminutive sword hung at his side with his paw at the ready. He was alert to every sight and sound around him. Puss said not a word until they had rounded the last corner; the castle stood directly ahead of them in its full splendor.
" 'You wait here,' Puss directed, motioning to what appeared to be an overgrown flower garden with a rather dilapidated rock-hewn bench in the midst of the tangled greenery. 'I'll go on alone from here.'
" 'I'd rather go with you,' Prince Grapevine replied. 'This is my destiny, you know.'
"But Puss silenced him. 'Wait here. That's all I ask of you.' And he continued his walk toward the main gate of the castle, leaving Grapevine to worry and fret from the sidelines.
"From his vantage point, the prince could see that Puss was allowed entrance into the castle. Now came the hard part... waiting with no idea of what was happening inside. Prince Grapevine paced and pondered until he could take it no longer. He set his steps for the castle gate.
"In the meantime, Puss had made the acquaintance of the ogre-- an ugly scowling creature, humanoid in shape, with snarled black hair and long pointed nails. He wore the skins of animals to cover his body; his hideous face was enough to scare away the stoutest hearts.
"But Puss stood his ground. 'You are the owner of this castle?' he asked.
" 'I am!' roared the ogre. 'And I don't appreciate snoopy visitors!'
" 'But I have heard of your great ability as a shape-changer,' challenged Puss, 'and was curious to see if the stories are true for I have never yet met anyone who could genuinely change their true self.'
" 'Bah!' spat the ogre. And before Puss' amazed eyes, the ogre became a fire-breathing dragon. He shot a tongue of fire towards Puss who quickly stepped out of harm's way.
" 'Interesting,' said Puss serenely. 'But cumbersome. Could you become something small and delicate, but lethal, like a mosquito?'
" 'What you ask is too easy,' growled the ogre, swiftly converting to a tiny winged insect.
"Puss, taking advantage of the ogre's smallness, pounced to grab the mosquito from the air, but he was not swift enough; the insect sped on its way through the arched doorway and out of the room.
"It was just at this time that Grapevine was making his way down the corridor of the castle following the sound of voices-- one of which he recognized as Puss. He was just approaching the curving entrance of the room in which he hoped to find his cat when he felt the annoying bite of a mosquito. Acting on impulse, Grapevine smashed the annoying menace at the exact same time that Puss stepped through the doorway.
" 'The ogre...' Puss said, staring in amazement at his master.
" 'Where is the ogre?' asked Grapevine, looking cautiously about him.
"Puss walked slowly across the stone floor to where a little black speck rested at the prince's hooves. 'This,' he said, picking up the insect, ' was the ogre.'
Prince Grapevine, mouth agape, stared first at Puss, then at the inert bug. 'Y... you... mean' he stuttered, 'th... that puny thing...' He stopped, too stunned to continue.
" 'Puny in size, but not in power,' Puss explained, carrying the mosquito to the open window and setting it on the sill. 'But he is no more.' As if on cue, a dainty grey-feathered swallow flew to the window and finished off what-- to the bird-- was a tasty morsel.
"Still tongue-tied, Grapevine stood like a statue, unable to comprehend his good fortune. But Puss came to stand in front of him. 'You did well, Master.'
"At that moment, the two heard the sound of carriage wheels on the road outside. 'That sounds familiar,' Puss noted. 'I think you should prepare to meet your first guests.'
"Grapevine walked to the main entrance just in time to see the entrance of Princess Gooseberry. 'You are safe!' she cried, seeing her prince alive and well. She flew into his embrace, and the prince gladly received her.
"The king and queen followed their daughter at a discreet distance. 'We were concerned with your absence at breakfast this morning,' the king explained. 'And our discussion over what would have caused your hasty departure without so much as a farewell to the princess pointed us in this direction. Gooseberry would have it no other way but that we would follow to ensure your safety.' He looked curiously about the room. 'Am I to assume you have accomplished your business here?' The king looked first at Grapevine, but the prince was too intent upon the princess to respond. It was Puss who illuminated the happenings of their crusade.
" 'My master has released the castle and its lands from the grasp of the ogre,' Puss revealed. 'I believe this property would rightly revert to the queen's family.' He glanced at the prince to see if that piece of information had escaped his notice.
"But the queen settled the matter. 'My daughter seems to have taken a liking to your master,' she directed to Puss. 'And as I have no need for two kingdoms,' she smiled graciously at her husband, 'I will gift this property to the two of them on their wedding day.'
"And that day was not long in coming, for the prince and princess were deeply in love. When the great occasion had been properly celebrated, Princess Gooseberry and Prince Grapevine moved into the castle, and Puss in Boots became their trusted aide and advisor. And they lived happily ever after."
The story ended, Strawberry Baskets sat back to await the consensus of his listeners. "Mama should have been a princess," Wineberry sighed blissfully. "Just imagine... we'd be living in a castle on a hill."
"And I could go with Daddy fighting ogres," gleefully shouted Huckleberry, leaping to his feet and putting Spot, the pet cat, through his paces with the imaginary sword.
Strawberry Baskets looked down at Baby Gooseberry who had listened patiently throughout the telling. Now he saw why... she was sound asleep, her little hooves dangling limply against her grandpa's mane. "Well, I guess it worked as a bedtime story," he grinned.
Just then some quiet applause broke out from the kitchen doorway as Gooseberry and Strawberry Shortcake listened in. "You did a great job, Dad," Gooseberry complimented him. "I can tell because the foals didn't interrupt you once."
"It was a wonderful retelling," Strawberry Shortcake agreed as she crossed the room to kiss her husband's cheek and retrieve the sleeping foal.
"Where's Daddy?" queried Huckleberry.
The click of the back door provided the answer as Grapevine returned from his meeting. "Hi, everybody. What's up?" he asked, shaking off the new snow from his back and hooves.
"My prince!" giggled Gooseberry as she received his hug.
"What's this about?" inquired the perplexed stallion.
"It's a long story!" laughed Strawberry Shortcake.
"Yes, Daddy; you got rid of the ogre," declared Huckleberry.
"And married the princess!" added Wineberry.
"But the talking cat helped," clarified Huckleberry.
"Well, I've never heard Spot talk and I've never met an ogre-- unless you count Gridley back in high school-- but I've always known I married a princess." He kissed his wife lovingly, but suddenly jumped back and hit himself hard on the foreleg. He looked dumbfoundedly at the black spot on his arm. "Who ever heard of a mosquito at this time of year?" he said wonderingly as he held up the squashed bug.